‘Not If, but When’ Stressed to Firefighters at Multi-Agency Wildland Fire Training


In the midst of a verdun spruce grove near the inlet to Lake San Cristobal, firefighters enrolled in a wildland fire training class were briefly obscured by clouds of dust as they dug a fire break, energetically swinging hoe-like Polaskis and a scraping tool known as a McCleod.
Elsewhere during last Saturday morning’s multi-agency training session at Red Mountain Gulch Day Use Area, gleaming fire engines were displayed and explained and, a bit further down the road, Lake City Fire Chief Bill Hagendorf stood beside a 3,500-gallon portable water reservoir relating the intricacies of pumps and fire-retardant foam.
The May 5 training sessions were scheduled at the start of what is predicted to be an active wildfire season in Colorado, and marked culmination of a multi-month online, classroom and field training course for members of Hinsdale County’s Wildland Fire Response Team and Lake City Fire/Rescue.
Wildland Fire Response Team members Sam Fyler, Noah Krouse, Lollie Duncan and Hunter Lear, and Lake City Fire/Rescue Firefighter Evan Milski, received their Red Card Firefighter Type II certification with hearty handshakes and slaps on the back, washed down with a luncheon served up by community volunteers and Pioneer Jubilee Women’s Club.
Part of the newly certified firefighters’ training included online instruction at their own pace, classroom instruction and, most physically-demanding, multiple treks up and down Henson Street, totalling three miles, carting 45-lb. packs.
In addition to Lake City’s newly certified Firefighters Type II, other wildland fire team members taking part in Saturday’s class were previously certified Lori Lawrence, Rick Hernandez, and Caroline Mitchell, joined by Undersheriff Justin Casey, and Deputies Jordan Kaminski and Denham Starnes from Hinsdale County Sheriff’s Office, and, from Lake City Fire Protection District, Fire Chief Bill Hagendorf, Deputy Chief Joe Wonnacott, Captain Darren Hardy, Lieutenant Mike Tuttle, and Firefighter Bruce Hillis.
Saturday’s training session was a multi-agency endeavor coordinated by Forest Service Assistant Fire Management Officer Jim Ramirez, from Gunnison, and Rick Hernandez with funding contributed by RioGrande Watershed Emergency
Action Coordination Team. Funding from RWEACT,
according to Hernandez, is especially geared toward “building capacity” in terms of multi-agency fire training.
In addition to local agencies, others taking part in Saturday’s training were Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service. Local agencies taking part were Hinsdale County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees the wildland fire response team, and Lake City Fire/Rescue.
Deputy Chief Joe Wonnacott fairly beamed as he opened one compartment after another packed with fire fighting equipment in Lake City Fire/Rescue’s Type 6 fire engine with 350-gallon water capacity. Wonnacott went into detail on the necessity of periodic chimney inspection and state-of-the-art thermal imaging equipment which allows firefighters to detect “hot spots” not only secreted behind walls but also in forest locales.
Also displayed during the fire apparatus familiarization portion of Saturday’s training was U.S. Forest Service’s Type 6 fire truck, also with 350-gallons water and packed with equipment, as explained by Paul Dziekn, and the BLM’s larger Type 4 engine with 850-gallon water capacity.
Brennan Ellis repeatedly opened and closed hatches on seven separate compartments on the BLM truck, revealing chainsaws, a multitude of tools and hose, even down to requisite liquid to keep the windows of the fire truck clean.
After a tour of all three fire fighting apparatus — Lake City Fire/Rescue, BLM and U.S. Forest Service — firefighter students were urged to consider the “subtle differences” between each engine in terms of accessibility, the different types of tools which are stored, and water capacity.
As part of the familiarization and deployment portion of the class, Training Coordinator Jim Ramirez, Assistant Fire Management Officer for the U.S. Forest Service, explained how weather patterns impact wildland fire fighting and spoke on shelter deployment.
Ramiriz repeated the mantra “it is not a matter of if, but when a fire will occur” and noted “it’s a fact of living in such a beautiful area.”
In his demonstration on retardant foam and pumping mechanisms, Lake City Fire Chief Bill Hagendorf was aided by Theo Engle from the U.S. Forest Service and the BLM’s Mike Megel. Hagendorf briefly spoke on Lake City’s new 4,000-gallon water tanker which was acquired by Lake City Fire/Rescue through grant funding and delivered Wednesday this week. The new tanker is thoroughly up-to-date and comes with “all the bells and whistles,” according to Hagendorf.
It replaces a much-used 4,000-gallon water tanker which was acquired used from Town of Lake City and which has now been purchased by excavator Gene Brown.
In multiple-stage training, another outdoor classroom on Saturday was headed by John Wroblewski of the BLM, aided by Trevor Keenan from the U.S. Forest Service.
Wroblewski and Keenan presented a hands-on tool demonstration utilizing the wood-handled Polaski, a combined axe and hoe, and the McCleod, also with wood or fiberglass handle, which is a fire rake/scraping tool.
Intriguingly-named variations of fire fighting tools are a “Rhino” variation of a shovel, and the “Angry Beaver” which is an adaptation of the McCleod.
Not content to merely display these fire fighting tools, Wroblewski and Keenan crunched through dry spruce needles and undergrowth as they led their students out into the timber. With towering spruce trees surrounding them, the students then energetically wielded Polaskis and McCleods excavating a single track furrow which is in an initial phase of fire suppression.
“Don’t mind the rocks!,” they cheerfully called out, “utilize them as part of your single-line track.” As part of the fire line instruction, the Forest Service and BLM reps reminded firefighters, “the number one goal is efficiency, pace yourself and your body,” and — most important — “always keep in mind an escape route.”
Training exercises were concluded at 1:30 p.m. in the Red Mountain Gulch pavillion with a brisket and sides lunch prepared by Keith Chambers and eagerly devoured by firefighters, instructors and invited guests. Deserts were served by with a smile by a contingent of community volunteers.