From stump holes to kidney stones: My introduction to wildland firefighting

The wildland firefighting "personal gear" list includes 108 items.
The wildland firefighting “personal gear” list has 108 items.

This is part one in a series of posts about my experience taking the wildland firefighting course in Belfair during the month of May. I’m taking the course to better understand forest fires and the people who fight them. Read part two here.

After decades of fighting forest fires, Eddie Wright finally found himself in the hospital this year, waylaid not from burns or smoke inhalation but from failing to do his most basic on-the-job duty: drink water. Lots of water.

The retired Poulsbo firefighter worked through symptoms of dehydration for years while battling fires in the summer heat of Colorado, Idaho, Nevada and Eastern Washington.

“Over time, what you end up with is a kidney full of rocks,” he said of the salt clumps that were surgically removed a few weeks ago. “It’s not pleasant, guys.”

This was the first lesson Wright had for the wildland firefighter class I’m taking this month at the North Mason Regional Fire Authority’s Station 21 in Belfair. Most of the 24 students are Mason County firefighters, but I’ve seen a few shoulder patches from departments in Kitsap and the east side of the Olympic Peninsula. Much of the county’s wildland firefighting know-how is centered in Poulsbo. Along with Wright, the Poulsbo Fire Department provided instructors Jay Melrose and Mike Prevost, both of whom have years of wildland experience.

Wright touched on several other dangers from unexpected places. After a fire, he said, watch the ground for patches of white ash. That’s likely a “stump hole” – a spot where a slow burning fire crept under the surface, turning roots into a fine, hot powder. Many a firefighter have suffered serious burns after sinking thigh-high into the super-heated ash.

Other things to watch for: helicopter rotor blades, other firefighters’ tools, vehicles slipping off narrow or unstable logging roads, old and unreliable vehicles, rolling logs (often on fire), flame retardant aerial dumps and terrified, angry wildlife – particularly hornets, which are bad on a good day and worse when their nests are on fire.

The class, held over four and a half days in May, is for firefighters who want to be ready for what’s likely to be another tinderbox summer.

Last year, there were more than 760 wildfires on state-protected lands. More than 200 square miles burned.

Poulsbo Fire's Jay Melrose models eye protection.
Poulsbo Fire’s Jay Melrose models eye protection.

The 2014 wildfire season will be worse than average, according to the state Department of Natural Resources. Dry, warm weather is expected from June to the end of August, increasing the potential for big fires earlier in the season.

I’m taking the class because I cover public lands – national forests, national parks and state-owned parks and timberlands. I want to understand wildfires – and the people who fight them – better.

If I pass, I’ll be allowed greater access to fire zones typically closed to journalists for safety reasons.

Despite the West Sound’s penchant for rain, the number of serious fires appears to be growing.

In 2011, the “Big Hump” fire burned more than 600 acres near the west edge of Olympic National Park.

Mason County sometimes gets smaller forest fires. In 2010, a fire burned about 60 acres near the Skokomish River.

So far, I’ve passed the Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior test (with a B+ I am more proud of than I probably deserve to be) and am studying up for the big exam later this month.

We get out of the classroom next week and spend some time building fire lines and practicing with firefighting tools (pulaskis, shovels, etc.), fire-lighting devices, hoses and brush trucks. We’ll also get training on how to quickly tuck ourselves into personal fire shelters, which look a bit like a giant foil-wrapped burrito.

The final hurdle is the pack test. Everyone has to hike three miles in less than 45 minutes while carrying a 45-pound load on their backs.

Firefighters who pass the class are typically called up for the big Eastern Washington fires. Recent deployments took Kitsap firefighters to Wenatchee and Leavenworth in Chelan County.

I’ll post more on the class in the weeks to come.

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