Training program prepares firefighters to battle wildfires

Courtesy of the Wildland Fire Protection Program.

Courtesy of the Wildland Fire Protection Program.

By Kim Buckley, NewsNetNebraska

When battling wildfires, it’s not as simple as stop, drop and roll.

And more than 500 firefighters since January have found out through Nebraska Forest Service Wildland Fire Training Program classes that help state firefighters become nationally certified and provide additional local training.

Terry Spoor, director of the fire science technology at Southeast Community College, said these classes provide a broader understanding of the wildland side of fighting fires for the students.

“Wildland fire fighting is an integral part of firefighting services in Nebraska, especially those in the Western part,” he said.

Casey McCoy, a wildland fire training manager for the Nebraska Forest Service, has helped trained firefighters battle wildfires for the past six years. He said the classes put a “Nebraska spin” on the training and help firefighters with large incidents, like fires on the Niobrara River.

Firefighters are required to take an annual refresher course, complete with course studies. This year, McCoy’s “letting the student become the teacher,” he said. He is using student stories from battling wildfires last year to reinforce what the firefighters learn in training.

Last year, firefighters saw the worst fire year on record. More than 1,500 wildfires burned nearly 500,000 acres of land in Nebraska in 2012. The drought helped wildfires spread faster and their numbers increased.

McCoy said the program has received several photographs of 2012 wildfires to use in the classes, taken by a mix of students, the service and members of the public.

“Instead of seeing photos of a fire on a hill in Boise, Idaho, it’s a photo of a fire on a hill on the Niobrara,” he said, “It brings it home so much more.”

More than 500 students have taken training classes since January. McCoy said he expects at least 200 more students will participate before training classes end in May. The classes include a two-week, academy-style training course at Fort Robinson and the Nebraska State Fire School.

“We haven’t really slowed down much since training last fall,” he said. “When you have a fire season like you did last year, you expect a busy year.”

McCoy said that if history holds true, there will be an above-average number of wildfires this year, but not as bad as last year. After a big wildfire season, McCoy said its expected to see an elevated season the next summer.

“The overall take-home is that the instances of big fire seasons … seem to be shortening and the spikes are getting taller,” he said. “They’re coming closer together.”

These classes help students the most when they face fast and unexpected wildfires in western Nebraska. McCoy said students have told him that the training came back to them and made sense after fighting big wildfires.

The training also helps students find summer jobs. Both McCoy and Spoor said the classes help the students get certified, which helps them get employment.

But wildfire training also helps the firefighters limit damage to places in western Nebraska. Wildfires can cause a large amount damage and hurt tourism in those parts.

A wildfire in Crowford, where McCoy grew up, destroyed a pine ridge last year. It will take about 100 years for it to grow back.

“No one alive today is going to see the pine ridge as it was ten months ago,” he said.

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