USA — In one of only a handful of programs like it, student crews from Fox Valley Technical College fight hundreds of wildfires across the state.
They work side-by-side with professional firefighters, bulldozers and fire engines as they chase the edges of a fire and help blast it out.
The group, which fights some of Wisconsin’s 5,000 annual wildland fires, also is training for a special certificate that spun out of the Natural Resources Program.
The program, which celebrates 50 years of training during a ceremony today, is the only in Wisconsin that offers a two-year associate degree as a natural resources technician.
During their two years, students dabble in nearly every aspect of natural resource education, from fish management to plant identification to water quality.
“We focus on the hands-on whenever possible instead of lecturing in a classroom under artificial light. We’re out on the trout stream, we’re out on forest fires, we’re out maybe surveying some property for the Department of Natural Resources,” said Rick Buser, department chairman. “The students don’t just know how to do it. They’ve done it.”
They train specifically for jobs like a conservation warden or natural resources technician.
Buser jokes that the best part, though, is “playing with fire.”
In an increasingly popular specialty that has grown out of the Natural Resources Program, students can earn an advanced technical certificate in wildland firefighting.
In the classroom, those students study the behavior and safety of wildland fire, training that’s often mandatory for jobs in wildlife and forestry fields.
Buser, a self-proclaimed “adrenaline junkie” who is a captain for the Town of Neenah Fire Department, takes students to the scene of wildfires.
Up to several times a week, a fire rangers station calls to alert him when conditions are ripe for wildfires. Buser then brings a crew to stand by in case it’s needed.
“We might get on three fires that day. We might not get on one, but we’re basically out there waiting, anticipating,” he said. “It’s part of that defective chromosome that we all share that we like to go toward things that are wrong and make them better.”
They were called to a massive wildfire in 2005 in Cottonville that destroyed about 3,400 acres in Adams County. More than 200 state DNR personnel were on the scene for that fire, which burned a path 7 miles long,
A crew from FVTC also fought it through the night, pulling an 18-hour shift.
Heidi Springborn, a 2006 graduate, was studying when someone ran into the room, yelling about a massive fire. She immediately hopped in a car and joined the firefighters, patrolling for hot spots.
“I was so scared yet so exhilarated,” she said. “We really didn’t see much fire our job was to give the DNR people some rest but let me tell you, it was an experience.”
The rare hands-on training with wildlife fires has helped graduates of the Natural Resources Program land jobs in public parks and departments of natural resources across the country, many filling positions at the state DNR.
Springborn now works as a wildlife/lands technician for the state DNR and says her specialized training helped secure the job.
“I may be here in a few years, but this wouldn’t have happened so soon,” she said. “I never expected this to happen so soon, and it did, and now I’m running with it.”