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Getting carded at firefighting course

CAMP GUERNSEY JOINT TRAINING CENTER, Wyo. — You’re never too old to get carded.

I received my ‘red card’ or initial firefighting certification when the Guernsey Fire Department hosted a Wildland Firefighting course April 12-14, during a weekend that about 20 high school seniors from surrounding towns, Guernsey, Wheatland, and Torrington, were expected to show, but a bomb cyclone hit the area just days prior. The students had to make up the snow day, all except one student.

Brandon Miller, 17, a senior at Guernsey High School, was determined not to miss the class, one in which he excelled, eager to ask questions at every turn. Brandon said, “I want to be a pilot like my father,” who is Maj. Jason Miller, the manager for the Camp Guernsey Airfield, and a UH-60 Black Hawk pilot. But Brandon said firefighting was also something that interested him.

With open seats, I stepped in to join him.

The 40-hour courses, taught four or five times throughout the year, are offered to Camp Guernsey staff; traditional soldiers assigned to the fire department; state employees; and the general public. This most recent training was offered to high school students, the first class, intended not to be the last.

Camp Guernsey Fire Department Capt. Miguel Sandoval said, “The idea was to offer high school students a career path, one they might choose during or after their academic career, whether that be high school or college. It gives them options; something else to consider.”

Brandon and this reporter sat through what I thought would be death by PowerPoint, but the subject of wildland fires intrigued us. Firefighter instructors Sandoval, Firefighter II Luke Brigham and Firefighter II Robbie Edmunds brought discussions to life with their own experiences, battling flames, which according to what I learned, rely on the fire triangle: fuel, oxygen, and heat. Take one of those away, and the fire goes out.

Camp Guernsey Fire Department Chief Alan Baldy stressed the importance of all hands on deck if the need demands. “Last year, we went to the Britania Mountain Fire near Wheatland for 14 days in August-September 2018. From start to finish, we had one crew each day, two people we can rotate. We had to cover the base, too. Currently, the fire department has 12 slots and 11 of those are filled, which averages out to three people per shift.”

Sandoval added that at the Britiania Mountain Fire he was assigned to structure protection. “My involvement was later,” he said. “Robbie and Luke were on initial attack phase, then they moved us to structure protection, and we patrolled the line until we were released. All told, we were there for almost two weeks.”

Being in the Wheatland and Palmer Canyon area, “they would have been the first responders,” Sandoval said. “They called us for help under the Annual Operating Plan, which contains an agreement that calls for local help in fighting wildland fires.”

One of Camp Guernsey’s firefighters, Brigham, who was a firefighter in Colorado, brings valuable experience, having battled flames in the Hyde Park and Waldo Canyon fires in 2012. Brigham, who always knew he wanted to be a firefighter and has been one since 2007, said one of his greatest lessons is safety first.

Add Brandon and myself to those rolls as firefighter initiates. With our ‘red cards,’ which are no longer red, but colored yellow, white or even pink — “the name just stuck,” Sandoval said – we now have the ability to call in aircraft.

In the class we also learned about fire behavior, the organization of firefighting teams and how much they get paid, and the importance of teamwork. There are a variety of roles one can play as a firefighter. He and I took lessons on what Smoke Jumpers do, how to work the line, and the laborious, but equally important task of mop-up.

Wildland firefighters use unique tools to prevent the flames from getting at the fuel, which are a mix of plants, trees, dead vegetation. They use axes, shovels, chainsaws, tools with names such as Pulaski, a Combi, and McLeods, some with teeth, sharp edges and most all of them have long handles designed to move earth to dig trenches. Then are ways to create controlled burns, and black lines, which essentially eat the fuel before the fire can get to it.

We learned that fires can hop, skip, jump and run in a blink of an eye. As a result, wildland firefighters are asked to think on their feet, while remaining calm and focused, but with an alertness which could save lives, to notice such things as a sudden wind shifts.

Communication is one of the biggest lessons if not the biggest—talking to each other becomes extremely important, especially when gathering information. The lack of it or miscommunication historically has been one of the biggest causes of things going wrong, or in worst cases, the cause of death.

“Don’t fall asleep on the line, or anywhere out there,” the instructors said. “And don’t be afraid to ask questions, especially of the bosses.”

For his ‘A’ efforts, Brandon made an appearance at the North Training range the day of the bucket drops, an annual exercise to recertify aerial crews and firefighters about a week later. He was clad in a yellow shirt, helmet, firefighting tool in hand, and a big smile.

For more information about the Wildland Firefighting courses, call Camp Guernsey Fire Department Chief Alan Baldy at 307-836-7717.