An early and active fire season is keeping wildland firefighters unusually busy, but they’re still making time for critical fire training.
“Remember, it’s only grass and trees, it will grow back – you won’t,” firefighter Casey Warren recently admonished a group of firefighters attending a wildland fire refresher course at the Rapid Valley Volunteer Fire Department.
The room was filled with firefighters sacrificing most of their Saturday to prepare themselves for what’s looking like a long, dangerous fire season in the Black Hills and on the grasslands.
In the coming months, the U.S. Forest Service will have approximately 150 people involved with fire this coming summer, according to Todd Pechota, fire management officer with the Black Hills National Forest. The roster will include full-time and seasonal firefighters, aerial support and other necessary staff.
The South Dakota Wildland Fire Suppression Division will reach summer strength when 75 to 80 seasonal firefighters and aviation support personnel join the division’s Black Hat and Bear Mountain hand crew teams. Between 20 and 25 full-time and seasonal firefighters are on those teams.
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In addition, Wildand Fire has four field offices in Rapid City, Hot Springs, Lead and Custer. Approximately 25 engine crew members operate from those offices, according to fire management officer Jim Strain. Engine crews will range from three to five firefighters.
Standing shoulder to shoulder with those firefighters will be equally well-trained volunteer firefighters from throughout the region.
Volunteers are an integral part of fire response in the area, Strain said.
“They’re trained to the same standards as state and federal firefighters,” he said. “They do this on their own time. They do it on the weekends and at nights and when they’re done with their jobs to help us out and their communities.”
Matt Geidel, 22, is a member of the Rapid Valley department. There is a long tradition of fire service in his family. Geidel has worked as a seasonal firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service and believes firefighting is rewarding.
“I can come back and say I helped someone,” he said.
Jarid Jeske, 25, “grew up” in the fire service in Wisconsin, where his father was a firefighter. He’s been involved with fire departments for 15 years, but had to wait until he turned 18 to become a firefighter. He’s now a member of the North Haines department.
There’s a lot that happens behind the scenes at a fire, including all the hours of training, Jeske said. “You have to know what you’re doing.”
An assistant chief with Rapid Valley, Warren’s day job finds him working as a firefighter/paramedic with the Rapid City Fire Department. He’s a certified South Dakota fire instructor and qualified as a strike team leader. A strike team leader has the skills and training to supervising three-five resources -- engines or trucks -- during a fire.
The Saturday refresher course was designed to update firefighters on everything from radio frequencies to the unusual fire behavior seen this spring.
“The primary purpose of wildland fire training is to save lives,” Pechota said.
Firefighters from Rapid City and Rapid Valley, Whispering Pines and North Haines volunteer fire departments attended the March 24 training.
“Each fire department or fire district has their own requirements, however, most if not all that participate or respond to incidences within the national forest or on the borders, their requirements are the same as the federal level,” Warren said.
There are departments within the state that don’t require that training, he added.
“But, there are departments that require above and beyond that training, too,” Warren said.
After sitting in a classroom for more than four hours, the firefighters demonstrated their skill at deploying a critical piece of equipment – their personal fire shelter, compacted in a 4-by-6-by-10-inch pouch wildland firefighters carry on their belts.
Deploying the fire shelter has become an “absolute” in wildland fire refresher courses and is an integral part of initial training.
“The fire shelter training can’t be over emphasized,” Strain said. The “new generation” of fire shelters requires more practice, he said.
Along with the annual refresher, state firefighters will practice shaking out and climbing into a practice shelter every two weeks during the fire season, he said. “It’s always good to practice that whenever you can.”
A 23-year-old Hot Springs firefighter, Trampus Haskvitz, died when he and two other state firefighters were trapped in a burn over while fighting the Coal Canyon Fire last August. Two U.S. Forest Service firefighters were also injured in the same incident.
After completing their shelter deployments, the firefighters had the option of completing their final requirement for certification – the Work Capacity Test.
Often called a “pack test,” the test measures a firefighter’s physical ability.
There are three different levels to the test, according to Warren.
Firefighters choosing to qualify for the Arduous Pack Test have 45 minutes to complete a 3-mile hike while carrying a 45-pound pack. No running allowed.
The Moderate Field Test requires covering two miles in 30 minutes loaded with a 25-pound pack.
The Light Walk Test is a 1-mile hike in 16 minutes without a pack.
South Dakota has roughly 8,000 firefighters, according to Denny Gorton, president of the South Dakota Firefighters Association.
Gorton estimates that more than 50 percent have completed wildland fire training.
“It really makes for a very large wildland firefighting force when you take all the fire departments – career, combination and volunteer,” Gorton said. “That’s a huge amount of resources available in the Black Hills and we have tremendous level of experience and qualifications in that entire firefighting force.”