Photo by Marcy Stamper
Third-year firefighter Madison Leeman, right, is studying to become an incident commander. She and fellow students learned to assess fast-changing situations using sand tables, which can be arranged to show a variety of terrain and scenarios.

Interagency training academy prepares firefighters to deal with challenges and hazards

By Marcy Stamper

“When I first encountered the fire world, I pictured them as heroic or too macho — and not that approachable,” said Methow Valley resident Abby Ludeman, who spent last week at an intensive training for firefighters. “But the people here have amazing stories and are humble about their experiences and want to impart their knowledge. That impressed me.”

Ludeman was one of hundreds of rookies and experienced firefighters from state and federal agencies at the recent Eastern Washington Interagency Fire Training Academy (EWIFTA), where they learned the parts of a fire, the use of tools and heavy equipment, and emergency procedures like what to do if hit by a retardant drop and how to deploy fire shelters.

In addition to lectures and hands-on instruction, all firefighters had to pass a fitness test — by walking 3 miles in 45 minutes with a 45-pound load.

Ludeman is starting her fifth season on a trail crew for the Methow Valley Ranger District, but this is her first firefighter training

By her fourth day at the academy, Ludeman had learned fire-weather behavior and how to use fusees, grenades and torches to burn out small vegetation to create a fire break.

Abby Ludeman

Ludeman’s primary assignment will still be on trails, but trail crews may have to evacuate people in a wildfire, or even be called up to fight fire. “I’d love to be able to give support to fire crews where I can,” she said.

Twisp resident Madison Leeman was working on the first level as an incident commander after two seasons fighting fires with a Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) crew in the Methow Valley.

Leeman, who will be entering her senior year at Washington State University in the fall, enjoys working as a firefighter in the summer, said, “The coworkers are amazing — it’s really satisfying to work with them.”

Leeman is studying environmental science and political science and ultimately hopes to become a lawyer. “Learning about intermediate fire behavior really connects with environmental science by showing how fire affects the environment it happens in,” she said. “But law school will wait because I love fighting fires so much. You learn so many skills you can take to do anything else.”

As a novice firefighter in 2016, Leeman and other rookies were fortunate to have a relatively quiet fire season to practice using pumps, chainsaws, and constructing a fire line. “Having that summer to get a grasp on what I was doing was really helpful,” she said. Initial attack on several small fires translated classroom instruction into on-the-ground learning, she said.

In 2017, Leeman faced more demanding assignments. Her crew was one of the first to respond to the fast-growing Canyon Creek Fire near Carlton last July. “Everything went really, really smooth. I was really proud. The real fire seemed similar to training,” she said.

“I learned the ‘10 and 18’ my first day in 1996” (the 10 standard firefighting orders and 18 watch-out situations), said Megan Hill, a captain with Spokane County Fire District 4 and an instructor at the academy. While the orders have been modified since then — in part, because of tragedies like the deadly Thirtymile Fire near Winthrop, Hill said the orders still cover three essential categories — weather, communications, and terrain and fuels.

Firefighters also drill to be constantly vigilant about lookout, communication, escape routes and safety zones, or LCES.

New approach

Bringing together firefighters from many agencies — DNR, the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, local fire districts and tribes — is a relatively new approach.

This is the third year DNR has run EWIFTA, consolidating all training into nine intensive days at Deer Park High School near Spokane, according to Guy Gifford, fire prevention and Firewise coordinator for DNR’s Northeast Region. Depending on their experience and schedule, firefighters attend all or part of the academy or take individual classes throughout the year.

During the massive Carlton Complex Fire in 2014, some people criticized agencies for not coordinating their responses or for disorganized communications.

The academy is an incredible opportunity to soak up more than 3,000 years of combined experience from 160 instructors, said Leeman.

In the past, firefighters higher in the ranks received interagency training, but it’s still relatively new to make sure all beginners get that experience too, said Gifford.

Getting up to speed for the fire season is particularly important in a world where wildland fire specialists now talk about a “fire year,” not a “fire season.” In 2017, although the number of fires nationwide was fairly typical, those fires burned one-and-a-half times the annual average in terms of acreage, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Targeted exercises

One room at the academy was filled with large sandboxes outfitted with miniature trucks and helicopters, toy soldiers and trees, strands of colored yarn and cotton balls. These sand tables aren’t child’s play, but are instead a way for instructors to create dynamic, three-dimensional models.

John Elliott, the fuels manager and a 31-year veteran with the Colville Agency, was prepping a sand table based on a real-life situation where two dozen firefighters had had to deploy their fire shelters.

Elliott noted that the crew had ignored several of the 18 watch-out condition — there was unusual night-time fire behavior, the firefighters hadn’t seen the area in daylight, and they had parked in an unsafe area.

“The exercise lets people discuss what they would do, and shows how there can be confusion. You can straighten it out before people get hurt,” he said.

By sculpting the sand into mountains, ridges and ravines, instructors can simulate terrain that influences strategy and risk. The yarn can be positioned to show roads, rivers or the fire itself. Cotton can stand in for smoke. “If it’s only a flat map, you can’t see how hard it can be to move,” said Elliott.

Students also learned about risks in the wildland-urban interface — like the Methow Valley, where homes are often on steep, winding roads adjacent to forested areas. Other hazards include wooden roofs, firewood stacked near houses, and powerlines.

Students practiced hooking and unhooking cargo from a 150-foot-long line as a helicopter hovered above. They spent one day responding to a simulated fire.

In the past few years, DNR has increased its firefighter personnel to 1,500 statewide. The agency also added 13 engines, according to Veronica Randall, a public information officer with EWIFTA. Seven of those engines are stationed in the Northeast Region, which includes Okanogan County.

“You might expect people to look down on beginners, but they really want to teach you what you want to know — and should know,” said Ludeman.

“This is a job that forces you to think about things in a whole new light,” said Leeman.