USA– Minn. – Even though the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources gave most of the state a “low” fire danger rating Wednesday, more than 700 firefighters were gathered at Itasca Community College.
While there were no real fires to battle — only an intermittent drizzle — the firefighters still were hard at work, learning how to fight wildfires as part of the Minnesota Wildfire Academy. People who attended the weeklong academy, which is a yearly event, learned a variety of skills, including how to use helicopters to fight fires and how to use a fire hose.
According to statistics from the Minnesota Incident Command System, the state has had 1,532 wildfires this year. Tim Engrav, a public information officer for the command system, said training firefighters to deal with wildland fires can help make the state safer.
“It’s preparing experienced as well as new firefighters at various levels of training to give them more experience and background,” Engrav said.
Firefighting students from across the country attended the training, two from as far away as North Carolina. Engrav said that once the firefighters are trained, they may be sent to other states to help fight fires in areas that have been hit by droughts, such as California.
“When the western states start having lots of fires, Minnesota can support those efforts,” Engrav said. “We’ll help support the other states and federal agencies by sending people out of state, too.”
There are only four other wildfire programs of similar size to the Minnesota academy, in Arizona, Colorado, Tennessee/Kentucky and Texas. The Minnesota academy has been running for 15 years, and this year the turnout is a record 750 students.
Todd Manley, an academy co-coordinator, said a wave of firefighter retirements has contributed to the larger turnout.
“We have a lot of folks that have retired,” Manley said. “A lot of that institutional knowledge and experience has left and gone to the next chapter of their lives. So we have this new group of folks coming up through the agencies.”
The training involves both indoor classes and hands-on learning. On Wednesday, students split into groups and were trained to use fire hoses, set up water pumps, participate in a prescribed burn and more. Today, firefighters will practice fighting a mock fire.
The 750 students aren’t the only ones learning from the classes. Much like at a real wildfire, MNICS established an Incident Command System to manage the academy. Nestled in the lower level of the college’s Backes Student Center, between 30 and 40 members of the incident management team oversaw the logistics of the weeklong academy, practicing what their roles would be during a real fire.
“There’s over (700) students here right now, and they need an incident command team in order to handle this,” said Kirby Budrow of Grand Rapids, who’s been to the Minnesota Wildfire Academy once before. “It’s a training opportunity for them as well. … So, it’s not just for keeping organization here, it’s for them to be able to train to handle large incidents like flooding or large fires.”
Fighting wildfires hasn’t always been this organized. Natural Resources Forestry Fire Technician Peter Leschak, who has been a firefighter for 34 years, said only during the past 50 years have wildfires been taken seriously. Leschak said the academy gives firefighters who are used to fighting structural fires a chance to gain skills to help them fight a variety of blazes.
“Wildfire has often been, historically, the poor stepchild of the fire service for various historical reasons,” Leschak said. “This academy is another way to help increase the professionalism of everybody.”
Firefighters with various backgrounds attended the academy. Some students had been fighting wildland fires for decades, while others had experienced only structural fires. Fire Program Manager for Advanced Minnesota Jeff Mayer said firefighters need to be able to battle both kinds of blazes.
According to Mayer, people are building homes closer and closer to the wilderness, exposing them to the dangers of wildland fires.
“There’s a lot more of these volunteer or structural firefighters that are being called out first,” Mayer said. “They also are requesting this training because they don’t want to put themselves in danger waiting for other resources to come. They want to have the knowledge base, so we’re pushing a lot more to help them to get that training.”
Kyle Bonham of Grand Rapids, who has been a firefighter for 13 years, said there is always something new to learn at the academy.
“There’s always room for more training,” Bonham said. “Always seek improvement.”