Learning to fight a wild fire

“At the end of the day, if you aren’t covered in black dust and dirt, then you didn’t work hard enough. You gotta get that fire blood all over you to know you did a good job.”

We all heard this as we stood in a line. Each soldier held a different tool. Some had shovels, a few had axes, and others had rakes. Each man stood side by side while they hacked at the dirt in front of them.

In March, my fellow soldiers in the Oregon Army National Guard and I were sent to Camp Rilea in Warrington to get our wildland firefighter certifications to get prepared to fight fires in the summer.

The majority of our training was in the classroom, and we covered important topics like fire behavior, fire shelters and weather patterns. The most important information I learned in the classroom was what to be aware of in the forest when engaging a forest fire. “Widow makers,” which are trees that can fall and crush someone due to the fire weakening them, were heavily covered. Understanding the critical need for good communication was also discussed, and how pointing out something unsafe was everyone’s job, not just the leaders.

That day though, we left the classroom and were digging dirt side-by-side. We were being taught how to dig a fire line to prevent a wildfire from continuing on its destructive path. I enjoyed this part of the training because I like being active.

We worked hard to practice getting a little of that fire blood. We joked, laughed and cursed as soldiers do, and listened to each other’s stories while we worked. Our instructors pointed out potential “widow makers” as we worked. They also told us about their experiences fighting forest fires.

After two hours of digging dirt that resulted in half a mile of fire line, the instructors decided we were finished. My back was tight, my legs were numb and my hands were stuck as if I was still holding onto my shovel. But it felt good.

Once we packed up our gear, we marched back the two miles we needed to cover to get back to our barracks. It wasn’t raining and the now emerging sun had burned off the icy coastal air. We arrived back to a well-made dinner and hot showers to wash off the sweat and dirt.

I was filled with new knowledge and skills, and when our training ended, I looked forward to fighting those fires and getting a real taste of that fire blood.

(Hunter Bomar is a community reporter with the Keizertimes.)