Recruits were face down in the dirt, covered in fabric fire shelter. Fire instructor JR Sullivan grabbed the shelter and shook it while screaming, “Hear a freight train comin’!”
Fire creates its own weather system, winds can reach up to 60 mph as the oxygen races to feed flames, and Sullivan wanted the would-be firefighters to be ready.
At the end of the exercise, the rookies crawled out of their cocoons, disoriented.
Cali Trees, 27, a former member of the U.S. Army enjoyed the training, “even though it’s practice it still got your adrenaline going.” She also discovered she needs to get a smaller fire shelter since her about-five-foot frame could not hold the shelter down while Sullivan shook it.
Forty-nine wildland rookie firefighters from a number of agencies, mainly the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, spent June 4-8 preparing for wildfire season at Methodist Camp, 35 miles north of Fairfield.
The South Fork of the Boise River flows through the beautiful valley, with surrounding ridges reaching 7,500 feet and covered with lodgepole pine and aspens, with their fresh spring leaves. Trainees spent time in these woods learning the habits of fire and the three main driving forces behind them — fuels, topography and weather.
The fire shelter training was one of nine stations the students went through on Wednesday.
Other exercises included learning how to use the pump and hoses on a 31,000-pound, fully loaded fire engine, or how to backburn a fire using a vari pistol that launches an incendiary 40 to 70 yards during controlled burns.
During the evenings, many students spent time studying and talking in the main lodge before heading a few hundred yards to a campfire near their cabins.
On Wednesday, fire instructor Jeremy Morgan brought a veggie omelet Meal Ready to Eat (MRE) that is used in the field to a group of students. Morgan, who ate the veggie omelet meals for 14 days straight last year after losing a bet, shared the omelet with new recruits. All agreed it was pretty bad, including Elizabeth Laidig, 20, who recoiled as she handed the spoon back to Morgan. Morgan carries a four-ounce plastic bottle of hot sauce with him — a survival tip he learned from years in the field.
With the stars overhead and a camp fire to stave off the cold mountain air, recruits spent a couple of hours talking with instructors and hearing stories from their experiences battling wildfires.
Ryan McPherson, of the BLM, gave practical tips that only someone who had spent year fighting fires would know. For example, if you find yourself in a marijuana garden — common on public land — stop and retrace your footsteps to avoid setting off traps, he said.
Or, he said, if you’re traveling to a fire in a helicopter and start feeling sick, vomit in your shirt.
“There’s nothing a pilot hates more than people vomiting in their helicopter,” McPherson said.
By 10:30 p.m. the crowd thinned out as people went to their cabins for a night’s sleep before waking up at 6 a.m.
As sunlight graced the peaks of the ridges with its warmth on Thursday morning, students quickly marched through the frosty paths to the main lodge for breakfast and morning briefings. A squad that showed up late had to do push-ups on the frost-covered porch.
During breakfast, Jake Miczulski, a U.S. Forest Service firefighting trainee, piled fried eggs and bacon between two pancakes to make a sandwich and powered down his meal.
After breakfast and a briefing, trainees walked 30 yards to the Old Lodge, built in the early 1950s, to pick up fire shovels and Pulaskis — a firefighting tool that combines an axe and an adze in one head. The device became popular after Ed Pulaski of the U.S. Forest Service used it to save a number of firefighters during the Big Burn in 1910, the catastrophic wildfire in northern Idaho.
A Real Fire
The trainees massed in front of the Main Lodge and were told the fire simulation scenario. On Aug. 3, 2012, under clear skies and a temperature of 85 degrees, an unidentified caller reports a blaze adjacent to the South Fork of the Boise River Bridge by the Methodist Camp.
This was the biggest test of the new recruits. An almost two-acre fire — real flames burning real forest — was lit for them to fight. They had to march 1.3 miles to reach it.
Flames and smoke reached for the sky; Dozens of students began scaling the steep slopes and started digging a fire line, just as they were taught.
The sound of chainsaws rolled down the hill as sawyers cut through the trees and brush ahead of them.
Cory Browning, 24, who works with the Idaho Department of Lands, coughed and shoved his face into his shirt for momentary relief, as clouds of smoke passed by. Firefighters call this “eating smoke” and Browning was having a full meal.
A loud screeching sound, called a “hoot” among firefighters, froze students in their tracks. JW McCoy, a veteran BLM firefighter, made the sound to let other firefighters know where he was using a chainsaw as a warning that they should keep an eye out for falling debris.
“It’s a little daunting,” trainee Mathias Fuelling said, referring to the fact that on a normal fire you would only have 10 firefighters versus 50 for Thursday’s training scenario.
Ready for Fire Season
As the fire progressed, acting BLM Twin Falls District manager Jenifer Arnold bounded up the hill to inspect the training.
By training in the field instead of a classroom and learning to work with other agencies like the Forest Service, students get the whole spectrum of experiences, Arnold said.
While re-sharpening the tools back at camp, trainee Jared Fitzgerald reflected on why he wanted to be a firefighter.
“I like the forest and being outdoors,” he said. At the end of the summer, Fitzgerald will begin a master’s program in environmental sociology, and he sees firefighting as “field experience.”
Mike Broecker, 44, first got the hook, as he calls it, for wildland firefighting in the early 1990s in Colorado. Broecker, who is a volunteer firefighter and EMT back home in Ohio, is working his second season in Idaho with the BLM since starting his family. He works four months in Idaho and spends the rest of the year with his wife and son in Ohio.
“You don’t take anything for granted when you get home,” he said. “ I really appreciate the sacrifice my family makes for me to fight fire.”
On Friday, after taking his final exam, Steve Frost, 41, recreation program manager with the Fairfield Ranger District, summed up the week’s training. “it’s physically and mentally challenging at any age, but at 41 it was difficult to keep up with the young kids.” He said he values the comprehensive training he’s received and feels he is better prepared to deal with a fire in the region if he were called.
When the testing was completed, the trainees headed over to their cabins to clean up. The students finished rehabilitation work at the fire site.
BLM instructor Ryan McPherson handed out certificates to all of the students who graduated the week-long class.
“I just love passing on all the different things I’ve learned from good mentors and different crews I’ve worked on,” he said. “I like bringing that knowledge to the table.”
The recruits packed up and hit the road — heading to stations across the region, ready to fight the next big blaze.