BY RHIANNON BERG
The Rainier High School campus may have looked like a summer camp this past week, with tents, movie nights and lots of food, but the cause was serious: More than 300 firefighters were going back to school to learn how to protect Washington’s forests during this summer’s wildfire season.
Last year’s wildfire season was especially severe, burning more than a million acres and costing taxpayers more than $167 million.
Firefighters from Thurston and Pierce counties were among those training in basic and advanced wildland firefighting skills at the Western Washington Interagency Wildfire Training Academy that wrapped up Monday in Rainier. But the training brought together more than 40 agencies and hundreds of firefighters from across the country.
“All firefighting agencies work together and depend on each other,” said Janet Pearce, a communications manager at the state Department of Natural Resources. “The more we train together before the season, the better we can work together during the season.”
Mike Dulas, a firefighter from the Seattle Fire Department, said it’s valuable to train with people from other agencies because it brings together firefighters with different experiences and prepares them to work on real wildfires together.
This year the training camp offered expert training for incoming, mid-level and senior-level firefighters. Courses included field training and equipment. Dulas dug fire lines and learned how to use 45-pound bladder bags during Monday’s training exercises, for example.
Kyle Bylin, a wildlands trainer from East Pierce Fire and Rescue, said the trainings offer participants a chance to actually use techniques and equipment and expand their contacts in the fire-fighting community.
This year, the Legislature allocated $7 million more than last year for wildfire prevention. Peter Goldmark, the state commissioner of Public Lands, had asked the state for an additional $24 million. He said Monday they would do the best they could with the amount they were given.
He urged community members to prepare for this year’s fire season and learn how to protect their homes. The more community members prepare before wildfires start, the easier it is for firefighters to contain fires, he said.
Allen Lebovitz, a firefighter and information officer for the Department of Natural Resources, said active firefighting crews usually work 16-hour days, taking a one-hour break for every two hours they work.
During their long days, firefighters eat a minimum of 6,000 calories from meals made by U.S. Department of Corrections offenders, Lebovitz said.
Bob Pickens, the kitchen manager at the training camp, said the training academy helps him find out which offenders can handle the stressful environment of feeding up to 1,800 people a day. These offenders are offered training in the kitchens and in wildfire firefighting in exchange for their work. Pearce said at least one offender who gained these skills from a similar training camp was later hired onto a local wildfire crew.
The academy is a joint operation of the state Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Forest Service and several western Washington fire districts.