A burning desire to learn

By David Talley | Published Wednesday, May 3, 2017

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It doesn’t take a diligent Messenger reader to know I’m a pretty big fan of Wise County’s Lyndon B. Johnson National Grasslands.

The naturalized area northwest of Decatur is probably my favorite part of the county, thanks to its relative wilderness and quiet roads.

But maintaining 20,000 acres of land isn’t easy. The local U.S. Forest Service office charged with keeping the place neat has to conduct multiple controlled burns throughout the year to clear brush, allowing the forest’s native species to grow more efficiently and lessening the threat of a severe wildfire burning down the rest of the county. While these burns have scientific backing, they’re not always popular with residents living near the Grasslands, who have complained online about the smoke, the proximity of a large fire and the increased traffic from firefighters.

DONE DEAL – David finishes the final lap of his three-mile work capacity test. Participants were required to complete the distance without running in under 45 minutes while wearing a weighted vest. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

So in my capacity as an inquiring journalist, I set out to learn more about prescribed burns on the Grasslands and hopefully answer questions Wise County residents may have about them. The first step was earning a National Wildfire Coordinating Group Red Card, which would certify me to attend a prescribed burn by ensuring that I’m fit enough to be on scene and have enough basic wildland fire knowledge to understand a little bit of what’s going on if the situation turns bad.

The first step was a four-day wildland fire course offered for firefighters at the Decatur Fire Hall. A long Saturday in a classroom, followed by two evenings and another, shorter Saturday with about 15 local firefighters offered pretty good insight into what firefighters are like outside their jobs.

As a reporter, any interaction I have with local firefighters is strictly professional. They’re putting out a fire or aiding victims at a car wreck or other disaster, and I’m doing my best to stay out of their way while picking up enough details to write an article. The classroom is a more relaxed setting, though, and it was nice to get to joke with them without anyone worrying what might end up quoted in the newspaper.

Our instructor, Boyd Fire Chief and Decatur Captain Chris Caster, efficiently covered lessons in fire behavior, weather, terrain, tools, communications and other important topics. I learned that fire moves more quickly uphill and that most twigs are considered 10-hour fuels, while larger trees are called 1,000-hour fuels. Firefighters have specific designations for just about everything they’ll encounter on the fire and how likely that thing is to be a threat to them.

While I tried my hardest to focus on fire behavior, weather and terrain (the topics that seemed most relevant to why I was there), the most impactful part of the course came with case studies into wildland fires that resulted in firefighter injuries or fatalities. In a series of videos, firefighters discussed the fire and decisions they made at the scene that could have changed the outcome for those lost. It was a somber experience. We watched a few videos and held discussions on the decisions they made. After the course was over, I went home and watched other studies we didn’t get to.

Our final day included some outside instruction digging fire lines and deploying fire shelters. Tools in hand, we lined up in a field near the fire station to scrape out a 30-foot line in the dirt. It might have been work, but as a guest in the class, I was happy for any chance to participate on the same level as everyone else. I might not have known as much as other students coming into the class, but all of our arms worked the same on the line.

I didn’t know what a fire shelter was before the class. If you don’t either, it’s basically a fitted sheet made of material designed to displace as much heat away from the firefighter as possible. Deployment consists of whipping the tightly-rolled shelter out of your pack and dropping face first into the dirt with it covering your entire body and pinned to the ground around you by your hands, knees and feet.

Full deployment looks a little like a small canvas boulder from the outside and feels like living in a Nestle Hot Pocket from the inside. Jokes aside, deployment is considered your last resort as a wildland firefighter, meaning you’ve exhausted all other attempts to escape the blaze and all you can do now is duck down and let the fire run you over and hope your shelter holds. As Capt. Caster put it, “if you’ve never prayed before, you’ll start once you get inside that shelter.”

After the class, my second barrier to earning a Red Card was a U.S. Forest Service work capacity test, also called a pack test. Red Cards require completion of an arduous test, which consists of walking three miles while wearing a 45-pound weighted vest in under 45 minutes.

I was actually looking forward to this part of the process. As a cyclist and endurance athlete, it seemed like a fun way to show off my base fitness. Maybe I’d even set a new record for completing the distance. My girlfriend always says I walk too fast when we go shopping.

I realized that was wrong upon arriving at the McCarroll Middle School track last Thursday. I’d been told to wear shorts and running shoes, but it was cool that morning, so I compromised and wore stretch-fit slacks and running shoes. Two others waiting at the track to complete the test were wearing shorts. All the U.S. Forest Service employees I’ve seen have been wearing slacks and boots, so that automatically told me I was in for more than I thought, and picking up the 45-pound vest confirmed that.

The vest comes in both men’s and women’s fits, with the women’s vest weighing the same, but distributing that weight differently to reduce bounce on a smaller-framed person. Considering the vest’s weight and its percentage of my 146-pound frame, I opted for the women’s vest.

You’re not allowed to run during the test, meaning you have to do this awkward-gaited power walk in order to finish in time. The other two testers were pretty adept at this method, but I struggled with it as it seemed to make the vest swing more. By the end of the first lap, my collar bones were sore, but I was up about 15 seconds from the pace I needed to finish at exactly 45 minutes. After the second lap, the other testers had left me in their dust, but I was up about 30 seconds over that time. After the first mile, my hip flexors felt like they might lock up, but I was about a minute up. This was nothing like dodging shopping carts at Wal-Mart, and I was hurting more than I did during the 80-mile mountain bike race I did in 2015.

Twelve laps did not go by quickly, but I was proud of myself for getting a new type of workout in. I finished about 1:30 faster than needed and was sore for a week.

Looking back, the course and test aren’t specifically for prescribed burn observers like me; they’re for wildland firefighters training to stop dangerous blazes from destroying homes and lives, but isn’t that also what prescribed burns are for?

Clearing out fast-burning brush in a controlled burn means that fuel won’t be there if an actual wildfire were to sweep through the area. In turn, that means firefighters have a better chance of stopping a blaze before it reaches a home. Residents that complain about the smoke and traffic during a controlled burn might feel differently with a looming wildfire in their backyard.

And with those thoughts, everything I learned at the fire hall came rushing back to me: without a controlled burn to help stop a wildfire before it ignites, local firefighters might be left to face the same last-second, life-or-death decisions made by those in the case studies we watched in class.

Without controlled burns, we all might have to make our choices, duck into whatever shelter we have, hope it holds and say a prayer.

David Talley is a Messenger reporter.

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