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Crews prepare for hot summer
325 people get extensive fire training
Preparing for the worst, 325 members of Sequoia National Forest hand crews underwent extensive training last week at the Porterville Municipal Airport.
The annual training is held for the 18 hot shot crews headquartered at Sequoia National Forest, which can be sent to fight forest fires anywhere in the United States, said Capt. Robert Benick, organized crew coordinator for SNF.
The fire crews went through a variety of training to prepare them for any circumstances they might encounter when that first call goes out. They spent two and a half days at the airport, and this week 74 rookie crew members are going through similar training.
Prior to the airport training, the crew members attended two days of classroom training.
“We go over policies and changes from last year,” explained Benick on Friday.
He said last year the crews spent much of their time outside of California and in the past have worked at hurricane recovery efforts and even were sent several years ago to Texas after the space shuttle exploded on reentry.
“We sent 15 crews out of state last year. It was a very busy season,” said Benick.
Over the two days at the airport, the crews visited eight different stations to go over strategies and resources. Some of the stations were pretty basic, such as what resources they should carry to how to use maps and compasses.
There was also a station on the utilization of mules to pack into a fire, a concept not used much in the past 25 years, but one that was used often in the early 1900s.
“It is one of the historical ways to get to fires,” explained Benick, adding they can be used when smoke does not allow helicopters to get into an area. They became popular again in 2007.
The pack teams are stationed on the Inyo National Forest. The forest service used to have thousands of mules, but today it only has a little more than a hundred.
“It’s a strong history of the forest service,” said Michael Morse, who manages the mule pack teams.
The crews were taught how to use and work with the mules and how the mules can get them into wilderness areas. Using 10 mules, then can carry up to 1,500 pounds.
The mules can carry up to 150 pounds each in supplies, and can be used to restock crews if helicopters are not available.
“We educate them on multiple things,” said Morse, explaining the firefighters are show how to camp in the wilderness and how to protect resources, as well as to how to work with the animals.
The more experienced crews, four in all and called Type II initial attack crews, went through simulation of an initial attack, including the scenario of a traffic accident with victims and a wildland fire.
The crews were radioed out and attacked the situation much like they would do in the forest.
“They have more qualifications,” said Benick of the attack crews. Last week’s training was to “develop their training skills beyond just a basic firefighter,” he said.
Scott Steinbring, assistant crew coordinator, said, “We create an incident within an incident,” explaining they ramp up the exercise by adding conditions, such as the wildland fire to the traffic accident, or even a crew member being injured, just to see how the crews will react.
Other training includes medical evacuation, how to program radio frequencies, how to deploy fire shelters and even how to initially attack a fire.
Benick said the ages and experience of the crew members vary, but many have more than 10 years of experience, and one man has been with them for 28 years.
Crew members carry between 50 and 80 pounds of gear, including their food, medical supplies, shovels and other firefighting tools “to do their jobs.”
It is grueling work and often dangerous, but the training the men went through last week is one way the forest service is making the men as safe as possible when they are on the fire lines.
Rick Elkins is editor of the Porterville Recorder. He can be reached at 784-5000, ext. 1040, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.