Regional firefighters complete exercises in Wildcat Hills

osh Burke, left and Andrew Lehr, right watch the fire they set grow as they wait for the helicopter to come drop water on the area. Burke and Lehr were ignitors Saturday morning at the Western Nebraska Engine Academy.

The Gering Fire Department hosted fire training exercises on public land in the Cedar Canyon Wildlife Management Area at the Wildcat Hills Saturday, Sept. 14. The annual Western Nebraska Engine Academy is a two day training that provides fire personnel with experience and replenishes the land.

As the firefighters and other fire personnel arrived at Five Rocks Amphitheater Saturday, they held a debriefing about the day’s objectives before heading out into the field for the live fire training. The objectives focused on safety of the personnel and public, utilization of strategies to minimize exposure, use of full suppression tactics and to assist when needed with initial attack efforts.

“Having everyone come down and participate is phenomenal,” Gering Fire Chief Nathan Flowers said.

Saturday’s training provided 171 fire personnel from four states with opportunities to complete their task books.

“To reach a certification, fire personnel have to complete their books,” Jay Wickham, who is the district office operations manager with the South Dakota Wildland Fire, said. “The person at the certification level evaluates the trainee to see if they are qualified. This opportunity gives them experience to get those certifications.”

Once the fire personnel arrived on scene, they split into their branches to begin their assignments. Personnel worked on the ground as well as in the air to put out the grass fires. The first branch worked toward the northeast of the management area along Carter Canyon Road after assigned personnel lit the fields using drip torches. The torch’s fuel is a mixture of diesel and gasoline. The personnel were guided by a burn plan.

Josh Burke with the Imperial Fire Department was an igniter, who used a drip torch to set fires within the upper valley area Saturday morning.

“It takes a lot of prep work to get things ready ahead of time,” Burke said.

With a torch in his hand, Burke said he looks at the containment line, grass and shrub heights, and area to determine where to burn. Fire personnel worked along mow lines and roads to establish black or burnt foliage down wind. The black creates a safe barrier beside the fire line.

“You stake out your station as far as your lines based on fuel height and what lines you have around the outside so you don’t jump your containment line,“ he said.

The Charlie branch ignited grasses and shrubs in the valley of the Wildcat Hills as helicopter personnel practiced getting their drop lines correct. As they fly over the fire, they empty their bucket of water. Wickham said they want it to fall like rain.

“The key is to get that momentum of the water stopped and let it fall down like rain, so it coats the fuels,” he said. “Otherwise, if they’re too low or it comes out and it stays together, it hits one area. You want it to coat those fuels completely, so it works.”

Gering firefighter Charlie Gannon said Saturday’s exercises were a fun learning opportunity.

“You get a lot of good experience learning pre-burns and making sure it doesn’t burn past where you want it to burn,” he said.

Following the weekend academy, Gannon hopes his fellow fire personnel “get experience to learn how to fight fires and do it safely.”

Academy sponsors also were in the field Saturday to experience firsthand the efforts of fire personnel.

“It was fun and intense like the movie ‘Backdraft’ in person,” said Aurelio Godina of Scottsbluff.

Watching the fire personnel communicate taught Godina about the importance of establishing black.

“I learned that making the black and starting to burn there first makes sense because if you burn something, it can’t start on fire again.”

Bert Flores of Scottsbluff echoed Godina about the importance of burning the perimeter.

“I learned black grass keeps you safe,” Flores said. “It was really nice to be able to participate in this.”

Aside from the hands-on training fire personnel receive at the academy, the Game and Parks also benefits because their land is replenished with nutrients from the burn.

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Lauren Brant is a reporter with the Star-Herald and the Gering Courier. Contact her at 308-632-9043 or by email at lauren.brant@starherald.com.

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