Wildfire Academy draws nationwide attendance

Wildfire Academy draws nationwide attendance

08 June 2012

published by www.grandrapidsmn.com

 USA — If it seemed like there was a lot of activity involving firefighters at Itasca Community College this past week, you weren’t mistaken.

The 12th annual Minnesota Wildfire Academy was held at ICC from June 4 to June 8 with 560 firefighters from 16 states and even one from Puerto Rico attending more than 20 classes dedicated to different aspects of fighting wild fires.

This is the sixth year the academy, held annually the first full week in June, has been held at ICC in Grand Rapids and according to Steve Flaherty, the fire program manager at Mesabi Range College in Virginia and the Grand Rapids Fire Chief, the move to ICC was a successful one for the academy.

The first year the academy was held at Fortune Bay, then moved to a hotel in Eveleth the following year, said Flaherty, who is also one of the academy coordinators. It was difficult to hold the classes in a hotel as it didn’t allow for effective hands-on training. Outdoors hands-on training was also difficult during that time as the academy was held in January.

Flaherty credited another academy coordinator, Barb Meyer, for the idea of moving the academy to Grand Rapids and changing the date to June. Meyer is the fire training coordinator for the Minnesota DNR in Grand Rapids.

They just couldn’t get the outdoor work accomplished in the winter, Meyer said.

In 2005, the last year the academy was held Eveleth, there were 235 students, Flaherty said. In 2006, the first year at ICC, the number of students nearly doubled to 435.

It’s a bit of a gamble holding the academy during fire season, but they haven’t had to cancel it yet, he said. However, the Ham Lake fire in May 2007 nearly caused the cancellation of the academy since many of the students and instructors were involved in fighting the Boundary Waters Canoe Area fire which burned more than 70,000 acres.

Planning for the academy begins almost right after the current one ends, Meyer said. Training needs are assessed then she approaches Minnesota Incident Command System (MNICS) agencies – a partnership of state and federal agencies which include the Minnesota DNR, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Minnesota Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Northeast Interagency Fire Cache, National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – to see which ones are able to provide instructors.

According to the academy brochure, “all wildland fire training presented at the Minnesota Wildfire Academy will meet standards set forth by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.”

Once the curriculum has been established, the academy information is posted both locally and nationally, according to Meyer. Some classes offered are limited to how many students may attend and class selection is made “on what we need in Minnesota.”

Registration priority is given to MNICS agency students until early April, according to the brochure.

Flaherty explained that a big advantage to holding the academy is having the training in one area. Some of the courses are hard to find, which is one of the reasons the week-long school draws from a nation-wide pool of firefighters.

There was a dispatch class scheduled in California, Meyer said. But that class was cancelled, and because they needed to take the class, those students travelled to Minnesota to take the class.

The classes offered this year ranged from beginner, such as basic wildland firefighter to highly-experienced, such as single resource boss – engine boss. One of the most popular classes is the four-day “Saws” class, where firefighters learn skill training for using a power saw in fighting wildland fires. Flaherty said that the 20-seat class has a waiting list by February and the waiting list is usually three times the classroom seats available.

Pat Klobuchar is a former Hibbing firefighter who now works with the DNR. He said this is his third year attending the Wildfire Academy and described the training as “fantastic, bar none.”

The classes, the meals – it’s all a very good experience, Klobuchar said when he had a break during the helicopter class.

“I’m very excited about this,” he said.

Both Meyer and Flaherty praised the partnership between MNICS, Mesabi Range College and ICC in putting on the academy. Flaherty also pointed out that the University of Minnesota also deserves credit for allowing use of its property for some of the training.

“It’s been a very successful partnership,” said Meyer. “We’ve trained a lot of people.”

She said that during the academies, there have been no serious injuries during training. Flaherty said that was a tribute to the skill of the instructors, who have students doing things they are not used to doing.

They were also appreciative of the Grand Rapids community.

“We appreciate that the community is willing to be inundated with firefighters and be a good host,” she said.

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