SWEET HOME — Oregon State University student Levi Hanson took a break from digging a trench line on Friday, leaned against his shovel and pulled his bandanna from his face.
The piece of fabric, once white, had turned a dirty gray, approximately the same color as smoke pouring into the blue sky from slash burn piles.
Friday was the culmination of the annual Mid-Willamette Valley interagency Wildland Fire School, a five-day training designed to prepare new firefighters for battling blazes in Oregon’s forests.
The school included nearly 300 new and veteran firefighters, and ended with a live fire exercise to give new workers hands-on experience.
There were still plenty of lessons to be learned for the uninitiated on Friday.
Such as bandannas.
Hanson, an Oregon Department of Forestry worker in his third year fighting wildfires, said his bandana filters out smoke. “It really helps you breathe quite a bit. I would recommend at least trying it,” he added.
Fellow ODF crew member Sarah Messier of Florence, sporting a red bandanna, agreed. “It’s this or nothing, and I’d rather have something covering my face,” said the Southern Oregon University student, who is in her second year fighting wildland blazes.
The most essential lessons at the fire school are about basic safety in a landscape filled with flames, of course.
“Always be looking around. You need really good situational awareness. Where could the fire be going?” said Kaci Fitzgibbon, a hydrology technician with the Sweet Home Ranger District who was taking part in the school.
She added that it was important not to be trapped by flames, and to be aware of burning material that could fall onto or roll into crew members out in the forest.
Josh Durham, a Santiam River zone trail crew member out of the Detroit Ranger District, said that communication was key. “You want to pass any messages along the fire line. … Teamwork goes hand-in-hand with that communication,” he added.
Hydration is critical, several firefighters said. And there were “hydrate” shouts occasionally as firefighters dug trench lines, clearing roots, sticks and other fuel from the flames.
“If you’re thirsty, it’s probably too late. It’s not that you need to drink a lot, but you need to drink consistently,” Hanson said.
Alek Drake, a 2018 graduate of Lebanon High School, said it was critical to understand that the fire isn’t done when the flames disappear. “There’s extensive work that has to be done to make sure it doesn’t come back,” he added.
And that means the unglamorous monotony of digging, raking and scraping the same ground over and over again.
“It’s a bunch of hard work. You need a certain level of integrity,” Drake said.
Another lesson imparted by Hanson and others was to listen to veteran firefighters. “There’s a lot of people who have been here a lot of years. Keep your eyes and ears open all you can and absorb all you can,” Hanson said.
Some of the wisdom may sound slightly comical to some, but would be familiar to outdoor enthusiasts such as hunters and backpackers.
Drake said it’s critical for many firefighters to figure out their optimal sock situation for cushion, and to prevent blisters or other issues. After all, crews can be on their feet all day, for days and days. “Two pairs of socks is a good thing for a lot of people,” he said.
At the start of his first season fighting wildfires, last year, his feet got “beat up.”
The Mid-Willamette Valley Interagency Wildland Fire School is hosted by officials from the Department of Forestry, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde, and the U.S Bureau of Land Management.
The first part of the week was spent in a classroom setting, where participants learned about basic fire behavior, map and compass use, teamwork, safety, tools and hose lays, fighting fire in the rural-urban interface and fire investigation.
Students camped in tents at Sweet Home High School and ate their meals in a communal setting, giving them a taste of life in a real fire camp.
Winter Cross of Eugene, in her first season fighting wildfires, estimated that women make up about a third of wildland firefighting crews, and that can be surprising to the general public.
“All of the guys are super-supportive of us women,” added Cross, a volunteer with the Mohawk Valley Rural Fire District.
Drake said his favorite thing about being a wildland firefighter was the camaraderie, and mixing with a diverse group that he probably wouldn’t come across in the real world. Plus there’s travel to different areas of the state or region.
“It’s really cool for young people. It gives you an opportunity to explore and test your boundaries,” added Drake, an Oregon State student who will be a sophomore in environmental sciences.
Drake and Hanson, a Veneta resident who will be a senior in mechanical engineering, said that they earn good money for tuition by working as wildland firefighters. But that’s not why they took the job.
Drake said he wants to dedicate himself to helping the environment and his community, and fighting forest fires is a good way to start.
Hanson said he simply enjoys the woods, like many Oregonians.
“I spend a lot of time out in the forest and protecting the forest is a good thing to do. It’s a really great resource for everybody,” Hanson said.