Wyoming Volunteer Firefighters Train for Wildfires

By CHILTON TIPPIN, Laramie Boomerang | June 10, 2014

With a tree behind his fire engine engulfed in flames, Mike Morin called in the Blackhawk.

“We’ve got a torcher,” the Big Laramie Valley Volunteer Fire Department engine boss shouted.

Men and women on the line looked up from their hoses as flames shot up into the tree’s crown.

Morin’s engine was backed to the edge of a shallow, scorched ravine. He circled his finger above his head like a helicopter rotor, turned and high-tailed it toward the truck.

Josh Skelton, Big Laramie volunteer firefighter and emergency medical technician, stood at the engine’s rear, cranking valves that piped water into hoses strung along the line.

“We’ve got support,” Skelton said, gesturing toward a Camp Guernsey engine that had pulled between his truck and the burning Ponderosa Pine.

The Blackhawk chopper thumped overhead, dipping low to discharge a bucketful of water.

As it peeled away, a thick plume of smoke surged up from the ravine.

The Guernsey firefighters stood amid the smoke, their hoses trained on flames licking up bunchgrass behind the Big Laramie truck.

It wasn’t long before the torched tree burned out, and the live fire training exercise resumed its course.

More than 150 volunteer firefighters met at Camp Guernsey on May 17 for WyoFire 2014, a two-day wildland firefighting training camp.

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Albany County Fire District No. 1 sent a strike team of five engines to the training.

The volunteers represented four of the district’s five volunteer fire departments: Centennial, Big Laramie, Vedauwoo and Tie Siding.

Along with Little Laramie Volunteer Fire Department, the five rural departments provide fire protection for roughly 2,385 square county miles and about 5,063 county residents _ not to mention a multitude of outdoor enthusiasts.

It was a chance for volunteers to sharpen skills, dust off equipment and plug away at their firefighter task books, which list necessary tasks, competencies and experiences for various jobs and ranks.

“Fire is a live thing, literally, and it’s important for (volunteer firefighters) to get out and see what it does,” said Richard Parrish, Big Laramie Valley fire chief. “WyoFire is a good opportunity for some of our people to get hands-on fire experience.”

Sam Funk, WyoFire public information officer, said the training helps ensure qualified people respond to wildfires in the region.

“It’s an early-season shakedown to knock the dust off the boots and get back into it,” he said. “`They can’t make this any more realistic, other than having an actual fire.”

The training simulated a wildfire response. Volunteers debriefed in the morning. They gathered near the barracks at Camp Guernsey, the mock fire base, where they heard weather reports, referred to large quad maps and learned of the reservoir from which they could draught water.

Each volunteer received an incident action plan that outlined training assignments: structure protection, initial attack, water handling, live fire and mop up.

The live fire exercise centered on a controlled burn. Bureau of Land Management crews set fire to an area that needed thinning, and the volunteers were called in to keep it contained.

It was during the live fire exercise that the tree lit up in flames.

“That’s when it changed from a fun fire to something real,” said Skelton, who’s working toward his type 1 firefighter certification.

Wildfires create their own weather systems, Morin said. Volunteers must account for humidity, shifting wind, exit strategies, positions of their fellow crew-members and more.

Trainings put new firefighters in situations so they can learn to adapt quickly and make smart decisions when it’s the real deal.

“It’s not a game for us,” he said. “We put our lives on the line the same as career guys do.”

Looking ahead, volunteer firefighters in Albany County anticipate potential late-season fires, said Brooke Thornock, Big Laramie Valley volunteer firefighter.

“It’s pretty wet right now, but that means all the grasses will grow,” she said. “That could mean fuels in August or September.”

Parrish agreed with Thornock’s wildfire outlook.

“From our point of view, we’ve got a lot of water right now, and that’s good,” he said. “Wetter is certainly better. That gives us a breather for now, but it looks like, for our fire season, the greater potential is going to be later this year, because all the water is going to make the grass grow. So, come July, August and September, you could have a lot of the fuels.”

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