Firefighters train for survival
February 23, 2012
FORT SILL, Okla. -- More than 200 firefighters descended upon Fort Sill Feb. 18 and 19 to participate in wildland fire training as part of the second annual Destry Horton Wildland School.
The school is named in honor of Horton, a Chickasha Fire Department firefighter, who died while fighting a wildland fire near Duncan in 2006.
"We don't want for Destry Horton to have died in vain. The goal is to save firefighters' lives," said Jared Williams, Lawton Fire Department training officer.
He believes lessons learned from past experiences can be applied through hands-on training.
"My whole job is training and keeping all of these guys safe. If we have one firefighter die, that's one too many," Williams added.
Lawton Fire Department served as host for the workshop which involved 12 different classes. The Fort Sill Fire Department provided classrooms for the training and sites for live fire burn demonstrations out at Blue Beaver driving range. Class instructors came from Oklahoma State University Fire Service Training as part of statewide classes for firefighters.
"We are using this workshop to get wildland training out to Oklahoma firefighters, many who are volunteers. We want to give them opportunities to increase their knowledge and hone the skills they already have to make them better firefighter," said Clint Langford, Fort Sill Fire Chief.
"Fort Sill is one of two places in Oklahoma where we teach specific wildland training. There are some classes that we can teach elsewhere but here we actually go out into the wildland areas on our ranges, light the grass on fire and allow it to burn," Langford said. "Then we have the firefighters attack the fire with their fire trucks, brush trucks and using hand tools, with and without the vehicles. And, we teach them how to work with other firefighters," he said.
According to Langford, more than 85 percent of fire departments across Oklahoma are staffed by volunteer firefighters. Plus the state has the greatest number of natural disasters. So firefighters have to fight wildland fires together.
"A lot of people call them 'grass fires,' but I recall many of the fires we had last summer having lots of trees that burned. So the term 'wildland' describes the areas much better. If they were just a 'grass fire' we could get control of them a lot quicker," said Mark Goeller, Oklahoma Forestry Services assistant director.
Volunteer and full-time firefighters came from many smaller departments around Lawton, and from all over Oklahoma to participate in the training at Fort Sill. A number of firefighters even came from Texas.
Goeller taught the backfire class, where students learned how to fight fire with fire. By going ahead of the fire in the direction the wind is blowing, firefighters can light several 'stripfires' that burn up the fuel back towards the main fire. Once the main fire runs into the backfire lines, it has nothing to burn and will begin to die.
"Lighting numerous strips will burn out the areas in between to keep the head fire from jumping the line. So how wide the strips are and how fast we light them will help regulate heat and keep the fire from jumping the line," Goeller explained to a class of 30 firefighters. After a morning of classwork, the firefighters and safety officers headed to Blue Beaver Driving Range on Fort Sill's west side.
Dave Nichols, a firefighter from El Reno, served as one of the fire safety officers. Once the signal was given, he walked along a line with a fire drip can, trailing burning fuel onto the grass. Almost immediately a line of fire formed, being driven north by the wind. A few minutes later, teams of firefighters in Nomex fireproof suits grabbed a hose and cranked up the engine on the fire pumper. By now the fire line was fully engulfed as the fire team attacked it with the spray of water.
Two hundred yards downwind, Goeller led a team to get the backfire going. One firefighter began laying down a strip of fire, and then the next firefighter started another strip of fire parallel to the first, about 10 feet apart. Soon they had three fire lines burning up the fuel in front of the main fire's path. There's a good reason for staggering the backfire lines.
"You have to stay aware of where the fire line is and where your exit is, in case the wind changes direction. You don't want to get caught between another backfire strip and the fire line without a clear escape route," said Richard Baker, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. He worked as one of the backfire instructors. "You have to remain safe at all times," he added.
As the four-man firefighting team waded into the smoldering blackened grass to pursue the main fire line, they laid out more hose. When fighting with a pumper truck, the firemen have to be able to add hose quickly on the go.
Ron Simon, Porter Hill volunteer fire department assistant chief, watched as some of his guys fought the fire alongside firemen from Lawton and Oklahoma City. He knows the importance of this training.
"We work off of the brush trucks all the time. We've never laid hoses like we're doing today. And it's a good tool when you can't get in with a brush truck or a tanker. So it's a good experience for all of us," Simon said.
All of the firefighters who attended the wildlands fire training school at Fort Sill remember the fires of 2011.
With the lingering drought in Texas and Oklahoma, the forecasts for 2012's fire season are not much better. So everyone wants to be ready when the fire season begins.
"This is a great event for our Fort Sill firemen to participate in because we get to see the true benefit. Last year we saw these same firefighters helping us fight the Medicine Park and the Meers-Ferguson fires. Some of them had been trained in wildland firefighting at the event we had here last year, and got to use it just three months later. All of these people are our mutual aid partners," Langford said.
Williams summed up the weekend.
"We can't thank Fort Sill enough for allowing us to come on post and have the school out there. With all of the classrooms and the open ranges for the burn training, this is the best place to have this school.
"Bringing in the Fire Service Training folks from OSU with their expertise, it's a win-win for everybody," he said.