And just like that, I found myself in fire school
“Okay… who didn’t bring a hand tool?”
The man asking is Adam Stoldal, a wildland firefighter assigned to the Heber-Kamas Ranger District in Northern Utah. This week, he is my unit instructor for basic fire school. At 6’2” and sporting a thick black beard, he stands out among a crowd. And, seeing that his job is to educate the next generation of wildland firefighters, it’s probably a good thing that he so easily commands attention.
In response to his question, I raise my hand as if calling a taxi. Adam signals to a nearby table lined with specialized wildland firefighting equipment. “Go ahead and choose one,” he says.
My eyes rummage through an assortment of shovels and rakes with flashy names like McLeod, named after its creator, or Rhino, named for the shape of its shovel which resembles a horn. My eyes are drawn to the Pulaski, a traditional looking axe but with one modification – an adze, the flat end of a coal miners’ pick, is welded just behind the axe head. I pick it up, and it all starts to feel a little surreal.
Months before, when my supervisor asked, “How do you feel about firefighting?” I had no idea it would include an opportunity to train like this.
With tools in hand, 14 students at Basic Fire School are about to follow several seasoned wildland firefighters into our local national forest, the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache. Wearing bright yellow shirts, green pants and black boots, we appear to be a well-functioning unit. Yet this march to the forest is a field test following three days of classroom instruction: S-190 Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior, S-130 Firefighter Training and L-180 Human Factors in the Wildland Fire Service.
Our first stop is at the base of a hill covered with dense vegetation. Our task is to work as a single crew and cut a fire line to a plateau about 100 feet uphill. This fire line is meant to delay or stop the advance of a fire by stripping the ground to mineral soil, thus removing fuel from the fire’s path.
Students with Pulaskis are sent to the head of the line. Yep, that includes me. Our job is to take an initial hack at the thick vegetation as we side shuffle up the hill. Those with rakes and shovels follow behind, removing and scattering any residual materials away from the fire line.
As a military veteran, I’m used to being physically tested. Pushups, sit-ups and a timed run are something all veterans are familiar with. Yet this type of physical work was foreign to me. Hunched over, swinging a fire tool, fully clothed from neck to foot, working against gravity to climb uphill, and during summer? It was only 10 in the morning, but already sweat began dripping down my back. For a moment I yearn for my air-conditioned office but just then an instructor points to a patch of earth 10 feet away and shouts, “Hold here!” There’s a finish line? I work faster, knowing I’ll soon have a chance to catch my breath.
While we rest, experienced instructors provide valuable guidance about line spacing and methods of communication. Then, we start the process anew to put this advice into practice. This second attempt to build a fire line is a little different though. After moving another 100 feet up the hill, unexpected shouting halts our work.
“Fire’s broken through! Escape routes – GO!”
Although it’s a simulated scenario, we respond to the announcement without hesitation. Our classroom instruction included a review of the South Canyon Fire, which claimed the lives of 14 wildland firefighters in 1994 as they tried to escape. Although the slope of our hill was not nearly as steep as the one they faced in Colorado, I was on the cusp of a humbling realization.
Our team made the mistake of not planning for egress, so we blindly ran up the hill looking for a clearing. As I ran, I regretted each day I ever skipped cardio. It was all coming back to haunt me as I sucked air, struggling to catch my breath. Eventually, our team gathered on a vacant dirt road where an instructor hit us with another update.
“You’re out of time! Deploy your fire shelters – NOW!”
A fire shelter comes in a package roughly the size of an adult shoebox. To use it, you remove the packaging, grab the sewn-on handles, and then purposefully shake it open. When unfolded, it resembles about 6 feet of aluminum foil wrapping. If trapped by a fire, your only chance of survival is to crawl into this silver cocoon, which captures breathable air, and stay calm as the shelter radiates the fire’s heat away from you.
Still tired from the run, I gladly climbed into my shelter. Although there were no actual flames, the small interior of the shelter quickly heated up from my own body heat. Again, I began pooling sweat. As quickly as it started, it was all over.
“All right. Climb on out!”
We took a few moments to review our surroundings. Some trainees made better decisions than others such as deploying their shelter on the uphill side of the road, reducing their exposure to heat rising from the hill below. Others, like me, deployed shelters without thinking in the middle of the road where fleeing vehicles might accidentally hit us. That’s why training is so valuable – we can make mistakes and learn from them without getting hurt.
As I drank from a canteen, I took a moment to enjoy the surrounding landscape, wondering how similar or different an actual fire would be to this.
Several minutes passed before we gathered our packs, hiked downhill and began exploring more aspects of wildland firefighting. In addition to building fire lines, wildland firefighters perform duties such as mop up, which is the cooling and extinguishing of burning material. We practiced this by lining up shoulder to shoulder and then placing feet of space between each of us. As we moved forward in a single row, we occasionally checked the ground with the backs of our hands. Although fire is easy to see when burning tree limbs, it’s harder to detect when underground and spreading among roots. If material is found burning, it’s our job to chop, scrape and douse the materials with soil or water until it no longer radiates heat.
One of the instructors simulated a hot spot by knocking apart a campfire with a hand tool.
“Get to it! Cool it down!”
We surrounded the fire logs, energetically axing, raking, shoveling and stomping smoldering timber as if it were a cockroach in a diner. After 30 minutes, the fire appeared to be lifeless. That’s when the instructor challenged us to feel the soil with the backs of our hands. Despite our honest efforts, the ground still felt like a heating blanket on full blast. I began wondering how many campfires I’d inadequately extinguished over the course of my lifetime. That math would have to wait. Our instructor was sending us to the fire range while he stayed behind to water down the area.
I don’t know if anyone besides me uses the phrase “Fire Range,” but it’s an easy way of describing the vacant lot of gravel we used to get first-hand experience igniting fires. Yes. Often, when conditions are right, wildland firefighters will use controlled burning techniques to ignite vegetation along a fire line. This burns up material in the path of a fire, hopefully stopping it in its tracks. Wildland firefighters start fires with tools such as hand flares, pistol-style launchers or drip torches. Drip torches are essentially metal cannisters filled with flammable liquid that burns when poured from an enflamed spout. It’s such a shame no one ever brought this stuff to my high school’s career fair.
An instructor points directly at me, “You - lead us back to the shop.”
“Roger that,” I say.
We single-file it back to the garage where tools were first issued. We’re dirtier, hungrier but more experienced. I think back on the fire degree I earned almost a decade ago. I had planned to be a full-time municipal firefighter. Instead, life led me to public affairs which then directed me toward the Forest Service web team. I knew this job would open doors but had no idea it would return me to my original passion – a chance to fight fires.
The course concludes and I begin the long drive home along the Wasatch Range. While I enjoy the view of the mountains, I think of the topography terms I learned in class: ridge, saddle, chute, peak. It’s almost impossible not to notice these features which had previously been blind to me. Now, I’m more educated, more experienced and ready to support our firefighting community when they need an extra pair of hands. It’s a good feeling, and one I’m hoping you’re able to experience too.
For hands-on experience, please visit Wildland Fire Careers or the Wildland Fire Programs section available on our Employment page.