State academies prepare firefighters for unique challenges of wildland blazes | KNKX

State academies prepare firefighters for unique challenges of wildland blazes

Jul 9, 2019

Naaman Midyette has fought many fires in the past two decades. But fighting those fast-moving blazes that engulf wildlands is different.

“It’s scary just knowing the power a free-burning wildfire can have,” he said.

Midyette, a veteran firefighter from Everett, recently took part in Western Washington’s wildland fire training academy along with roughly 400 others across many agencies. Almost all of his experience in 20-plus years involved putting out fires in buildings. His time at the 10-day training academy was his first experience with wildfire techniques.

"This is something that just doesn't happen quite as frequently for structural guys like me," Midyette said. "Since we don't see it as often, sometimes it feels more threatening."

On the day KNKX Public Radio visited the academy in Rainier, in southeast Thurston County, Midyette and a couple dozen other firefighters dug a fire line — a boundary that can help contain a fire and keep it from spreading. Organizers had planned a practice burn, but morning rain made the ground too damp.

Firefighters with the right training can be called out to practically any wildfire anywhere, including in other states. The training academies as they exist today have been going on since 2017, though Washington state has long encouraged agencies to cross-train with each other.

The academies are hosted by the Department of Natural Resources once per year each in Western, Central and Eastern Washington. Firefighters from local, federal and state agencies are invited to participate, from small-town volunteers to members of the National Guard. About 1,000 total participants attended the three academies this year, according to DNR.

"By doing this, we build rapport and relationships with these individuals now, so when we do see them and they're wearing any other color shirt, it doesn't matter," said Brandyn Harvey, a full-time wildland firefighter with the North Cascades National Park Service.

"I would feel comfortable taking these guys out to a fire right now," he added, pointing to his fellow firefighters.

The trainees spend several days in the classroom learning about wildfire behavior and firefighting techniques. Then, they get outside and learn how to use their tools.

STRUCTURAL VS. WILDLAND FIRES

Midyette and others say the biggest difference between wildland and structural fires is the approach.

When there's a fire in a building, firefighters have infrastructure to put it out, such as hydrants and hoses. They also have the kind of gear that allows them to charge into the fray.

"We actually go inside and go face-to-face with the fire," Midyette said.

Wildland fires move fast and can be hard to predict. The goal is to remove as much fuel as possible: dry branches and trees that feed the flames. Then firefighters create barriers, such as digging a fire line, to keep the fire from spreading. Putting out the flames with water and other suppressants is not always the primary mode of attack.

The firefighters digging the line do have their own gear: fire-resistant pants and shirts, helmets, gloves, and packs filled with tools. But those items aren't intended to encourage firefighters to head into the flames.

"After actually training for it, I feel a lot more confident with the leadership," Midyette said.

Training is crucial as the state continues to see more wildland blazes each year, particularly in places that with historically milder wildfire seasons. Officials say fires are happening closer to populated areas, putting people and property at risk.

The season also is starting earlier. By May this year, Washington saw more than 200 wildfires. That's around the time DNR begins hiring seasonal firefighters, and when the first of the training academies takes place.

Harvey, the firefighter from the North Cascades, says training is what allows firefighters like him to keep their heads straight in chaotic situations.

"There's examples where the fire has started blowing up or getting out of control, and there's a sense of urgency," he said. "We usually always mitigate it by having a safety or control plan in place so that you get a little excited, but you're not hysterical."