Virtual flames

Virtual flames

31 August 2008

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USA — Residents have built millions of homes at the edges of forests in recent decades throughout the West, and rural and small-town fire departments must now be savvy about fighting both in-town blazes, as well as out-of-town wildfires.

More often than not, the first responders to fires at what’s called the wildland-urban interface, are members of local, rural, often volunteer fire departments, said Don Smurthwaite, spokesman for the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.

To help make basic wildfire classroom training more accessible to these departments, an interagency group of local, state and federal agencies has, this summer, begun offering online classes on wildland fire behavior and on basic strategies and tactics for fighting wildfires.

The courses were developed cooperatively by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group and the U.S. Fire Administration’s National Fire Academy.

The goal was to make the information available to new recruits, wherever they are, when they need it, Smurthwaite said.

Officials also hope the distance-learning approach will help others who are interested — including people living in or at the edges of forests — to learn the most effective approaches to wildfire management, said Frank Carroll, a spokesman for the Black Hills National Forest.

“More and more people are talking about making your home ‘firewise,’ about defending your house and place,” Carroll said. “So, from that perspective, people that live in the woods can take these courses and get a better idea of how they can defend themselves and their houses.”

The two courses, which firefighter trainees traditionally have taken together, are designed to teach basic firefighting, the strategies and tactics that crews use to fight fires that are burning through vegetation and to explain how wildland fires behave, said Wendell Welch, the distance learning unit leader with the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.

They also cover the ways in which weather influences the spread of wildfires, he said.

The two basic firefighting courses are available online, free, for public use, according to Tim Murphy, deputy assistant director for fire and aviation with the Bureau of Land Management.

“They’re particularly helpful at this time for local fire departments and volunteers in order to accommodate their time,” Murphy said. “Having it online allows these folks to work on their own schedule, say through the winter, and then accomplish the actual field portion when they’ve completed the online portion.”

As of Aug. 18, nearly 700 people had enrolled in the courses, Welch said.

“I think that’s a pretty good number at this point,” he said. “And the information is reaching people sooner, and reaching more people, as opposed to just having a class here and there. I expect enrollment will go up over the next year or so. And where it’ll reach? I don’t know.”

Making the classroom work available online should allow small and rural fire departments to get their firefighters trained more quickly, and as necessity demands, he said.

Carroll said there is generally no shortage of firefighters, but in the past there was more limited access to these types of courses, especially for those in rural areas who would otherwise have to travel to take the courses.

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