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Smoke rises from multiple fires in a massive clearing outside Sweet Home, turning the sun into a small orange dot in the sky.

A column of wildland firefighters moves single file up an uneven dozer line — a swath of earth cut with a bulldozer to create a fireline — past a wall of burning timber so hot that even at more than 20 feet away, everyone turns their faces from the heat.

Up ahead, a tender fills temporary pools as crews fit hoses together, preparing to bring water to contained areas. Others hack at the ground with picks, creating firelines  removing anything that can burn, including tree roots.

This is the final day of the Interagency Wildland Firefighting School, which for the past 19 years has brought fire management officials from the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon Department of Forestry, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde together for a week-long training course.

The classroom portion is finished, and now the trainees — most new but many returning veterans — are putting their knowledge and skills to work in a field setting. The controlled burn, set on maybe 40 acres of timber company land, provides a training arena while also letting foresters practice preserving the resource and protecting an investment.

Quincy Coons is a fire crew squad boss and a forester with the Department of Forestry. He says he went into firefighting to protect the resource. But he also says it's exciting and fun.

"Timberland is their bank,"  he says, speaking from a forester's perspective on behalf of the logging companies with a vested interest in training wildland firefighters. "It's agriculture, but they have a 50-year cycle."

Coons is a type of wildland firefighter, but not the only type. Dawn Sleight spent seven years in retail before jumping into "fire," as they all call it. She's been at it for 20 years now, and with an Aug. 20 birthday, she's somehow always managed to be on a fire for that day.

"My food unit leader always makes sure to have a cake for me in the field," she says.

Others, like 18-year-old Tyler Cater, fresh out of high school, are going straight for the adrenaline, although that's a big motivator for everyone else as well. Working to control a patch of smoldering earth with a hose, he says this is his dream job.

Further up the hill, Ryan Harrison, who spends the off-season studying mechanical engineering at Linn-Benton Community College and has plans to move to Oregon State University this year, is in his second year on the fire crews, and works as a squad boss, or "squadie." He was deployed to his first real fire just three days out of fire school.

And then there's Christine Buhl, the scrappy young woman with sandy blonde hair jutting from under her helmet. She has a Ph.D. in entomology, and in fact works with the Forestry Department in that capacity. They call her Bugs. At least for now. She's doing fire, she says, because the department's "primary mission is fire suppression," and also because she wants to understand how fire behaves in the ecosystem, and how firefighters work.

"It's not forced, but it's encouraged," she says of the option to get into fire as a Department of Forestry worker. "It's 'all hands on deck' sometimes."

Buhl's crewmates tell the story of the time a squad boss was telling trainees about bark beetles and how they'll bite the back of your neck. Buhl, the entomologist, no longer able to remain silent, spoke up, shouting, "That's not a bark beetle!" She then educated her fellow firefighters on the finer points of insect identification.

So while they come from a variety of backgrounds, they've all signed up to perform exhausting work in dangerous conditions. To make it to the training exercise, they all have to pass a battery of tests and hike three miles in 45 minutes with 45 pounds on their back. 

What bonds them all, along with the adrenaline rush aspect, is that they all know they could die fighting a fire. That fact was made clear on the day they all had to deploy their fire shelters, which are radiant heat resistant body covers, used as a last resort when a fire gets out of control. Firefighters deploying their fire shelters end up face down in the dirt, holding the shelter down tight over their backs until the flames pass through.

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"It's one of the most humbling experiences that I've ever had," said Bobbi Doan, a department public information officer who took the fire school course.

She described the fire shelter drill, where instructors had them hike a few hundred yards and then blasted them with fans and smoke, shouting for them to get in their shelters. But when all the trainees started calling out to each other that they were safe, that's when Doan said they all came together and realized the real stakes they face in firefighting.

Doan also talked about lessons learned from what are known as tragedy fires, which are the ones some firefighters don't come back from. She noted a guest speaker at the school who talked about the 30-mile fire in Washington in 2001 that took the lives of four firefighters. These fires can serve to help future classes learn what they can do better. Doan said it was moving to hear the speaker talk about the tragedy.

"How much humility do you have to have to come out and say, 'I made mistakes and now people are not here?'" she said.

The cautionary tales from the tragedy fires become part of what firefighters know as "watch out" situations. There are 18 of these on a card each firefighter carries. They include being unfamiliar with weather patterns, fighting a poorly scouted fire, or losing visual contact with the main fire. 

Safety, of course, is big with the fire crews, and so too is understanding human behavior. In fact, each trainee had a three-hour course on human behavior, where they learned to recognize the warning signs of a fatigued or overstressed crewmate. 

Once they graduate, the classmates for this year's fire school could find themselves on a real fire line by Sunday.

"This school is really the kickoff for fire season," said Sleight. 

And all the veterans know that summer for them means fire work. Incident Commander Craig Pettinger, a 20-year-veteran and also a forester who said he started doing more fire because it's fun, echoed Sleight's remark when he said, "Someday when I retire I'm gonna take a vacation in the summer."

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Contact reporter Neil Zawicki at 541-812-6099 or neil.zawicki@lee.net

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