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Wildfire Academy prepares Park Rapids crews for duty

Two area staff from the Park Rapids Department of Natural Resources forestry office are using skills from the Minnesota Wildfire Academy courses they attended this spring in Grand Rapids as they work on crews in other states. It is the largest wildfire training program in the state.

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Joe Kuhlmann (left) of the Park Rapids DNR is using skills he learned at this spring's Wildfire Academy as part of a crew fighting a Colorado wildfire. Trees are cut down to help make a fire break to stop fires from spreading.
Contributed / Joe Kuhlmann
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Several employees from the Park Rapids DNR attended the trainings, including Joe Kuhlmann. He is currently part of a crew fighting a fire near Fort Collins in Colo. Kyle Haugen also attended the academy, and is using what he learned while serving on a fire crew in Tucson, Ariz.

Park Rapids DNR Forest supervisor Mike Lichter was a trainer at this year’s academy. He started his career in Colorado in 1998 and moved to Park Rapids in 2004. “The second week on the job I got initial fire training,” he said.

Fire crews are called to help areas around the country during fire season. Lichter said over the years he has been on crews out west. “I’ve been on one fire that was over 100,000 acres,” he said.

Crew members camp in an area a safe distance from the fire.

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“Typically there ends up being a small tent city at a county fairgrounds or some rancher’s hayfield that the incident command team sets up,” he said. “There could be several hundred people on the fire line plus the support staff. If it’s in the national news, there are probably 500 to 1,000 people working on it.”

Lichter said many of the staff at the Park Rapids DNR office have helped out with the Wildfire Academy training over the years.

“Before the Academy, trainings were scattered throughout the year at different locations in the state,” he said.

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Students at the Minnesota Fire Academy in Grand Rapids go outdoors to practice techniques they learn in the classroom to help them stay safe when working on fire crews.
Contributed / Minnesota Fire Academy

Others who attended the training included personnel from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Forestry and National Park Service.

Crew boss training

One of the classes Lichter taught this year was crew boss training. He said learning to supervise a crew of 20 firefighters that works on large-scale fire operations requires many skills.

“It’s not like here, where we’re driving trucks to small fires,” he said. “A crew is typically at a large fire like those last July in the Ely area, or the one Joe is on now out in Colorado. Crews are usually a longer-term fire support entity. The fire Kyle is on in Arizona has been burning since late May or early June. As crew boss, you’re going to be interacting with all parts of the operation and there are times when aircraft are working directly with you.”

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Helicopters and other aircraft are an important part of fighting wildfires.
Contributed / Joe Kuhlmann

Lichter said teaching and experience go hand in hand.

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“Teaching is a good way to grow your knowledge and refine your methods,’ he said. “You apply them and refine them the next time you have an experience fighting a large fire.”

New technologies are incorporated into the training and in the field as well. “We used to study maps spread out on the hood of a pickup truck , but now maps are updated nightly with a fire mapping app and we see them on our smartphones,” he said.

The maps are created by field operators who do observations during the day and input that data into the system.

“At morning briefing we all have access to the new map,” he said.

Lichter said crews use hand tools to clear fire breaks or mop up after a fire.

Mountain roads or fields are used to start a fire break. First a bulldozer or excavator widens the break. Then the ground crew gets to work.

“Before the fire gets there you spend a lot of time making a shaded fuel break,” he said. “We cut the underbrush along a mountain road and bring all that material to the opposite side of the road, creating a 30- to 60-foot wide area so the fire will reduce in intensity when it gets there. You use tools for digging, heavy rakes to make a break in the soil and prepping that area towards the fire.”

During ignition they burn off an area. Mopping up involves clearing up anything smoldering, any standing dead trees that have fire inside of them.

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Chainsaw operations

Litchter said teaching this hands-on class outdoors as he did with this spring’s chainsaw class gives students the chance to practice skills they will need in making fire breaks at large fires.

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Training in chainsaw operations and safety is helping Joe Kuhlmann of the Park Rapids DNR on his current assignment fighting a wildfire in Colorado.
Contributed / Joe Kuhlmann

“It’s done in a similar fashion to what they would be doing on a fire line,” he said. “You’re using chainsaws to cut down any trees that would be problematic, rotten trees so they don’t become a candle throwing sparks in the air and spreading long distances. When creating that break, you’re trying to also prune up trees as far as you can so it doesn’t climb. We don’t want a fire to get vertical.”

He said the focus of the class is teaching a consistent and safe way to handle chainsaws and the proper techniques for felling and cutting up trees in all conditions.

“You end up doing some fairly complex saw operations on larger timber, rotten timber, burning timber,” he said. “You need to learn it right the first time. Chainsaw operations are one of the most dangerous parts of the job, especially when you are in an unpredictable setting.”

Qualifying for the fireline

The Wildfire Academy also offers classes in leadership training, portable pump and water handling, aviation and more. “They will bring in a helicopter and get hands-on and active,” Lichter said.

He explained that qualifying for work on a fireline starts by taking courses. Next, a task book filled with every conceivable part of that job must be completed by working for someone who is qualified and having them sign off on each task. Candidates have three years to complete the task book.

The portable pump and water handling course teaches how to use water sources such as springs, creeks and rivers to connect to a hose and reach remote areas.

Crew members also learn how to deal with injuries at an incident.

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Safety is key when out in the field at a large fire. The Minnesota Wildfire Academy gives hands on training to personnel to help them be ready.
Contributed / Minnesota Wildfire Academy

“You typically have one EMT on a crew, and a lot of people take wilderness first responder training,” he said. “We constantly have a plan in place for how to get an injured person to medical care within one hour. That might mean creating a helicopter landing area near a fireline. You always have a route to get out if the unexpected happens and carry a fire shelter, but have a plan to get to a safety zone and hopefully never have to use it.”

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Lorie Skarpness has lived in the Park Rapids area since 1997 and has been writing for the Park Rapids Enterprise since 2017. She enjoys writing features about the people and wildlife who call the north woods home.
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