Becoming a Wildland Firefighter

A four part series

Wildfire season never ends in Southern Arizona, officials with the Coronado National Forest say. Firefighters must always be ready to respond when a fire sparks. The Arizona Wildfire Academy teaches new and experienced firefighters what they need to know to fight a wildfire. In this four-part series KGUN 9 goes inside the process to shine a light on the men and women who sign up to protect our communities.

 

PART 4: CHANGING FACES

These are the men and woman who put themselves in harm’s way. They hike into the wilderness to fight fires as a team. For years, those teams have been predominantly male, but more and more women are finding a spot on these crews.

Women like Kaylyn Wessinger. She is just 20 years old but is already working as a volunteer for the fire department in her hometown outside of Prescott Valley.

 

 

She dreams of a career in firefighting and chose to attend the Arizona Wildfire Academy in Prescott in March to obtain the certifications needed to get an entry-level job as a wildland firefighter.

In addition to volunteering at her hometown fire department, she works full time as a manager at a Chipotle restaurant.

She wants to be a hotshot and, later, a flight medic.

 
These are the men and woman who put themselves in harm’s way. They hike into the wilderness to fight fires as a team. For years, those teams have been predominantly male, but more and more women are finding a spot on these crews.

“I hope to be out there with a tight knit crew and I want to be highly regarded: a person they call whenever everything hits the fan and they need someone here now, ground zero, in the chaos.”

Wessinger knows she must work her way onto a crew. When that happens, it isn’t a glamorous life. They can work for 14 days at a time in remote, rugged places. After digging fire lines from dawn till dusk, they sleep on the ground.  But an entry-level job on a crew is a rite of passage in this industry.

“We all start right here,” said Punky Moore, a Public Information Officer for the Academy. Moore’s career also began on a wildland firefighting crew, like the ones training here.

Wessinger says she's aware most of her colleagues are men, but says she feels encouraged more and more women are choosing to work in firefighting. 

“It feels normal, I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be right now and it is nice to see other women here,” she said. “There's more than I personally thought I would see, which is really refreshing and I’m hoping that it'll influence other people."

 

PART 3: PUT TO THE TEST

While much of the Arizona Wildfire Academy focuses on training new firefighters it also prepares those with years of experience for the next phases of their careers.

Jim Stout has more than two decades of firefighting experience but he needs to prove he can handle the stress that comes with being a wildfire incident commander before gaining a new certification through the academy.

Incident commanders are responsible for collecting information from field crews and using it to deploy resources to fight the fire. They must be always ready to adapt given the dynamic nature of wildfires.

Stout is about to undergo an important test. It is an evaluation of how well he can withstand the barrage of information and distraction that pours into a fire command center and still make productive decisions.

The academy uses a state-of-the-art piece of technology called a Simtable to create a training scenario based on a real fire. The Simtable projects an interactive map onto a table-top box filled with finely crushed walnut shells so users can create peaks and valleys.

The academy uses a state-of-the-art piece of technology called a Simtable to create a training scenario based on a real fire.

For years, firefighters have used actual sandboxes filled with toy trucks and yarn to show crew locations and the fire’s outline.  The Simtable allows managers to monitor crew locations and the fire’s progress in real time it also can project where fire and smoke will go based on topography, wind, and vegetation.  

From the second Stout walks up to the table instructors start their pretend radio chatter to simulate the noise present in a command center. Stout must get what information he can from the out-going commander. It’s a difficult exchange when the man says he has to leave to get himself and his crew home and to bed, which can and does happen in a real fire.

This is what local news stations aren’t able to put on television during wildfire coverage- the controlled chaos that happens behind the scenes.

Stout must make decisions almost as quickly as the information comes in. Instructors call this “closing the loop.” For every input of information, Stout must make a decision about it and assign someone to take action. A situation that goes unaddressed has the potential to balloon into a larger problem.

During discussions about hotshot crews and helicopter water drops a young man rushes up to Stout frantically trying to get someone to help him find his fictional wife who is lost near the area of the fire.

Later, the instructors ask this reporter to play the role of a journalist who has weaseled into the command center looking for an interview. I fired about three questions at him before he told me to leave and find a public information officer. Disappointing for a reporter, but the right call according to the firefighters.

Finally, the instructor calls time.  What felt like a couple of minutes was half an hour. The group talks about what just happened and evaluates each other’s performance. After passing the test, Stout is now ready to be an incident commander on a real fire but he knows the real thing will be much harder.

PART 2: IN THE FIELD

The sun is nearly directly overhead as aspiring wildland firefighters stand quietly in long lines awaiting instructions. Their stoic faces are reflected in the reflective sunglasses they wear. Their fire-resistant shirts are bright yellow and stick out through the green and brown vegetation of the forest.

 
 

They line up behind the busses that brought them to this spot of forest on the western edge of Prescott. One person on the bus unloads their backpacks of supplies while another puts the shovels, rakes, and hoes they use to fight fires in a neat pile.

They march in a single file line to a clearing in the forest away from the road. The large group is quiet while they wait for instructors to arrive. This is a crucial day in the academy new firefighters must prove they can do the demanding labor required of wildland firefighters.

After a briefing, recruits break into 25-person squads and head to their assignments. Rookies learn how to dig lines that act like fire-breaks while more experienced firefighters practice cutting down trees with chainsaws.

Instructors watch every move carefully. If recruits develop bad habits here it can lead to safety issues during a real fire.

This field exercise takes place over two days in mid-March. On the second day it starts to snow, but the work doesn’t stop. Changing weather is a something they would have to deal with during a real fire. Throughout the week strong winds make the forest a dangerous place – even for training.

Instructors warn new firefighters about the dangers of widow-makers, dead branches hanging high in trees. If the wind knocks one loose if can kill or severely injure someone below.

After finishing the field day, the novices are ready to graduate the academy. However, for firefighters trying to jump to the next level of their careers, a much different challenge waits for them.

PART 1: BORN IN THE ASHES

It’s just after dawn in Prescott. A light breeze is pushing through the pine trees dotting Embry Riddle University the chill it creates is just enough to force the lines of men and women to shrink down into their hooded sweatshirts as they file into a large auditorium. It’s the third day of the Arizona Wildfire Academy and these recruits are eager to complete this course and join a crew as a fulltime wildland firefighter.

 
 

Before they can fight fires, they must learn all they can about them. Classroom sessions are full of information about how fires behave in certain weather conditions, how they can grow in different terrain, and the theories behind firefighting tactics. The skills and information taught here are based on a national curriculum taught at firefighter academies across the county.

Executive Director Tony Sciacca says class sizes and interest in the profession typically jump after a busy wildfire season.

The national standards and Arizona academy were born in the aftermath of the Rodeo-Chediski fire in 2002. At the time it was the largest forest fire in state history, burning 730 square miles and destroying 430 buildings. Firefighters came from across the nation to help all with their own set of best practices and procedures. When it was out, officials realized they needed a national set of methods and practices to fight wildfires.

 

Now in its 16th year, this year’s Academy has one of its largest classes-- 880 students. Executive Director Tony Sciacca says the class size has traditionally grown by about 50 students a year but the 2018 class is roughly 200 students larger than last year. 

The most important thing the academy teachers, Sciacca says, is safety. After 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hot Shots were killed near Yarnell, Arizona, in 2013, there was a renewed emphasis on safety skills and situational awareness, he said.

After successfully completing the academy, students earn the certification they need to join a crew, but they first must but their mind and body to the test in the field.

 

Kevin Boughton is a reporter for KGUN-TV in Tucson, AZ. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter or via email at kevin.boughton@kgun9.com.