Coping with social distancing, wildland firefighters Zoom through online training

12 May 2020

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USA – Every spring, wildland firefighters complete several required trainings and fitness tests to get ready for the season.

But with COVID-19 limiting in-person gatherings, these trainings look very different this year.

For firefighters with Walla Walla County Fire District 4, the “Wildland Refresher” is all happening online.

Bill Box is training lieutenant for District 4.

Though he has organized and conducted these types of trainings for years, this year was very different.

For two evenings in April, about 70 firefighters — most of them volunteers — joined online Zoom meetings dedicated to wildland firefighting safety.

They reviewed basics of wildland firefighting, learned from in-depth case studies of last year’s incidents and talked together about what the fire season might look like.

“It was a challenge,” Box said, since people weren’t together in the same room.

He drew on materials compiled by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources and chose case studies for training about wildfire incidents that were “close to home.”

One case study was especially pertinent: a firefighter who died after being burned over in Okanogan County, on a similar landscape to what firefighters regularly encounter here in Walla Walla County.

Although District 4 wouldn’t have done the Wildland Refresher online under normal circumstances, District 4 Chief Rocky Eastman says it has gone quite well.

“The instructors have done a great job of putting together a class that is pertinent and relevant to our situation here.”

There have even been advantages of the online training, since attending multiple evenings of in-person training at a single location can be challenging for volunteers who live all across the county.

Like all fire agencies, District 4 is following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and the governor’s office that will determine when it is safe to gather in person for training again.

Another important change is that the Department of Natural Resources waived the requirement that all wildland firefighters complete a “pack test” this spring, the physical fitness test requiring firefighters to walk three miles carrying a 45-pound pack in less than 45 minutes.

Instead, firefighters have been encouraged to work on their fitness at home and by safely walking or running in their neighborhoods.

All this training is especially important because experts have predicted the potential for a hot and dry summer.

As Chief Rocky Eastman explained, “We are going to have fires this year. It’s just a matter of how hot and dry it gets.”

He expects to see changes in wildfire response as agencies across the fire service figure out how to safely respond to large fire events.

The focus, he says, will be on “keeping firefighter and the public safe.”

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Alissa Cordner is a public information volunteer and wildland firefighter volunteer for Walla Walla County Fire District 4.

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