SALEM, Ore. — As wildfires continue to ravage parts of the western U.S., fighting those fires requires special training. That’s where four Rochelle area professionals stepped in.
Dave Sawlsville, Steve Builta, Tom McDermott, and Tom Richter recently returned from Salem, Oregon, where they were responsible for training about 200 National Guardsman on Wildland Firefighting.
In a four-day crash course trainees learn several aspects on how to attack the wildfires including safety, using basic hand tools, effective communications, and what they can expect on the fire line. At last count over 100 wildfires are burning in California, Oregon, Washington, Utah, Idaho, Alaska, and Colorado.
Sawlsville explained the seriousness of the wildfires has reached the highest of what is called the National Preparedness Level. The five levels range from one to five, with five being the highest. At each increment, more federal and state employees are made available if needed.
Sawlsville was among eight certified instructors from the state of Illinois who traveled to Oregon last week — part of a larger group of about 25 from across the country who trained National Guard personnel for the four days. Following their training the National Guard will be assigned to the Taylor Creek wildfire in southwestern Oregon.
“Every basic Wildland Firefighter learns the 10 standard firefighting orders they have to live by. Then they have 18 ‘watch-out’ situations, which are just things to keep in the back of your head to keep you safe,” Sawlsville said. “Then we take them out into the field and have them practice the things we have taught…things like how to deploy shelter, dig a line, what happens when fire bumps against urban areas.”
Sawlsville said handling wildfires close to urban areas require further knowledge on how to deal around power lines, shopping centers, housing, and the hazards they carry.
There are three factors involved with wildfires; the fuel its burning, such as sage brush, grass, or trees; the topography; and the weather and if there might be approaching storms, shifting winds, and the relative humidity.
“The humidity is so low. The lawns are brown and dormant. They have had what’s called dry lightning…because it is so hot and dry the rain evaporates before it hits ground, but lightning makes it to the ground, sparking fires. You can hear thunder and see clouds but you don’t feel rain,” Sawlsville said. “Normally you wouldn’t see this type of behavior in Oregon until September. Now they are seeing it in June.”
And because of the drought conditions already facing the state, the wildfires are spreading — like wildfire.
Cycle of life
At last count, there are 60 uncontained large fires. Just like hurricanes, when wildfires reach a certain land size they are named. The amount of active named wildfires currently stands at 108 according to the USDA Forest Service website. There are even more not named that are being handled by local jurisdictions. The Taylor Creek fire has so far consumed 41,000 acres, with 38 percent contained.
One of the dilemmas facing wildfire incident commanders — Do you let it burn?
Wildfires are a natural occurrence and are part of the cycle of life. Factors such as environmental issues from smoke, potential loss of large redwoods, and fires encroaching urban areas threatening life and loss of property are all things considered.
McDermott acknowledged the complexities involved in the quick training of the National Guard, all on orders from the governor of the state of Oregon to complete training and assist with the firefighting efforts. The Guard will have two weeks of 14-hour days, followed with two days off, and then another two more weeks of work. They will face rocky, steep, and rugged terrain throughout their service.
“For me it’s a great experience. I admire and look up to the military,” McDermott said. “It’s a privilege to be able to help these folks wherever I can. They’ve got families and jobs they want to get back to…the professionalism and attitude they brought to the classes — it’s an all around great experience for me.”
For McDermott, belonging to a group of area instructors has been a source of pride.
“We are in a small town and it gives me a bit of community pride when I’m standing in Salem, Oregon and see Tom, Dave, and Steve who are all from this area…that’s not bad when you have four people right in that little group that are considered to be a national asset,” McDermott added. “Makes you feel proud.”
Builta, along with Richter are one of the original Wildland Firefighter instructors in the state. He said the students they train start out with no prior knowledge and it’s up to the instructors to prepare them so they could go out to the fire line with the skills needed to get the job done. Builta talked about the wealth of knowledge shown by the students even after the first couple of days, although it is a tremendous amount to learn at first.
“It’s amazing to watch the transformation and it happens very quickly,” Builta said. “The fact we are able to provide the level of training that we can and that so many instructors coming right from this part of the state is a big deal and that we get called to go to places like Oregon to help when they need some additional assistance,” Builta said. “It’s an honor to be able to go out and help them.”