- Associated Press - Monday, June 22, 2015

PENDLETON, Ore. (AP) - A cloud of white smoke rose from the woods in the Blue Mountains between Pendleton and La Grande. In response, seasonal firefighters quickly moved to a nearby hillside along Summit Road.

Marching single file, the hand crews paused to assess the flames smoldering in mostly downed branches and tree stumps. After checking for snags and hazards, they worked together to dig a fire line and stop the tiny blaze in its tracks.

The incident was only a simulation, but for about 80 young firefighters it was a chance to test themselves in preparation for what forecasters say will be another long, hot wildfire season across the Northwest.

Friday’s training on live fire, done within a prescribed burn area of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, marked the end of a week-long fire school led by the U.S. Forest Service, Oregon Department of Forestry and Bureau of Indian Affairs. The course combined classroom learning with hands-on practice in forest near Mount Emily.

Come July, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise predicts an above-average potential for large wildfires throughout Oregon and Washington. Those conditions are expected to linger through September.

If the 2015 season is anything like last year, Northwest firefighters could be in for a wild ride. Fire burned an estimated 1.3 million acres in Oregon and Washington in 2014, including the 256,108-acre Carlton Complex that was the largest blaze in Washington state history.

Andrew Livingston, 23, of Baker City, remembers spending 10 days on the Carlton, an experience he described as “controlled chaos.”

“It’s a really fast-paced environment when it’s happening like that,” Livingston said. “You really need to have faith in your leaders.”

Now in his sixth season as a seasonal firefighter, Livingston returned to fire school to learn how to become one of those crew leaders. He plans to become certified as a Type 5 incident commander before the end of the year, which would put him in charge of mostly smaller, simple fires.

As part of an exercise, Livingston supervised one group of trainees keeping a close eye on their communication and safety.

“The biggest thing I want them to learn is to pay attention to your surroundings,” he said. “In my opinion, the most important thing about firefighting is paying attention so you can come home at night.”

On the fire line itself, 18-year-old Memo Morfin said they flanked around the blaze from behind in order to keep out of harm’s way. With shovels and Pulaskis in hand, they dug into the soil and cleared away fuels to pinch off the fire in a spot where it would eventually burn itself out.

Morfin, of Pomeroy, Washington, plans to attend Walla Walla Community College in the fall to study speech therapy. Firefighting is a great summer job, he said, not only for the pay but as something he can do to help the forest and communities.

“It’s just a great place to be,” Morfin said.

Jimmye Turner, fire prevention specialist on the Umatilla National Forest, said fire school teaches the new seasonal employees about fire behavior, how to use equipment and how weather can change conditions on the ground in a hurry.

First and foremost is safety. The crews move together in lines to steer each other around obstacles, and call out changes in wind and fire direction to keep each other alert.

That kind of teamwork is exactly what Turner is looking for.

“It is inherently dangerous work,” Turner said. “Everybody here is watching each other’s backs. I like to see that. That’s good business.”

Turner describes fire like a living, breathing animal; fire can sneak, it can jump, it can hide and it can run. It takes everyone on the same page to get a large fire under control, he said.

“Everyone has to have their eyes and ears in sync,” he said. “I’ve seen people really motivated and excited. That gives me hope for the future.”

When that first fire does break out, Morfin said they will be ready.

“They’ve taught us everything we need to know,” he said. “You might start out slow, but you always end up strong.”


Information from: East Oregonian, https://www.eastoregonian.info

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