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U of M Crookston students training to fight wildfire.

Students protect adjoining habitat from a prescribed burn during an April 16 field training day at the U's Red River Valley Natural History Area, part of the Northwest Research and Outreach Center.

Firing up for the hot season

Crookston students get hands-on wildfire training

By Tom Feiro

On a gray day in mid-April, 50 students got an up-close look at wildfire in the Red River Valley of northwestern Minnesota. Dressed in yellow gear and spread out over a dry, grassy area, the students tried their hands at different equipment--hoselines from a wildfire engine, a fire pump to control a back-burn, a drip torch. They learned techniques for making the fire do various things including, by day's end, disappear.

Fires--both prescribed and wild--are key components of resource management, and it's a big advantage for students in natural resources to get hands-on training for fighting and managing fires.

Each spring, students at the University of Minnesota, Crookston (UMC), have a chance to receive training that qualifies them to work with natural resources agencies around the country. Students in forestry class attend 32 extra hours of training in the evenings to qualify. This year they completed their training on April 16 with the live burn in a natural history area not far from the UMC campus.

"These are our future land managers," says instructor Larry Anderson of the Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge. "The training UMC arranges is unique because it exposes the students to multiple natural resource agencies."

"It was real beneficial to see how weather and topography affect wildfires," said Jim Pendroy, a junior in water resources from Spring Lake Park, Minnesota. "It really helps to have a variety of instructors from the natural resources agencies to share their different points of view and experiences. Safety and organization are stressed a lot, with the goal of protecting all firefighters. I want to go out and get more advanced training."

Instructors are volunteers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and Nature Conservancy--all agencies that hire newly-trained people.

The training provides the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service an initial look at students, their work ethic, and their basic abilities, says instructor Dave Bennett, a manager at the Rydell National Wildlife Refuge. At the same time, students see first-hand what fire work involves and get an understanding of what's required to work in the field.

Sophomore Adam Parnow said the training will help him in his natural resources aviation major. Jessica Sattler plans to work in natural parks; she sees fire management as a tool to know because it allows trees and grasses to grow.

"Even though I am not planning to go out west to fight forest fires, it will still be handy for me," says student Jessica Sattler. "I will be working in our parks and managing them in the best way that I can."

"I have been in firefighting for a number of years because I like being a part of a team that protects our forests," says Heath Estey, a junior from Nay-Tah-Waush, White Earth Reservation. "We push each other, [it] builds confidence, and you feel a sense of accomplishment."

On a recent tour of the Bemidji wildfire tanker base, some students in the basic training course got to see Estey respond on a helitack crew to fires on the Red Lake Reservation.

Training required, travel an option

Basic-level courses in fire weather and behavior, wildland firefighting, and firefighter safety designed by the National Wildfire Coordinating Board are required before working on any fire operations. Once students receive basic training, they are able to help agencies with prescribed burns and to fight wild fires in Minnesota and across the country.

"We look at these students to fill a need for assistance on prescribed and wildfire work on a short-term basis, but these are our future land managers," says lead instructor Larry Anderson, a prescribed fire specialist at the Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge. "The training UMC arranges is unique because [it] exposes the students to multiple natural resource agencies and their fire experiences."

Every year, UMC students and graduates have the opportunity to go "out west" to work on crews. They have worked on fires in a dozen states, from North Dakota to California. Some students were in Texas when fire crews helped with recovery of debris from the space shuttle disaster in 2003.

"I've been able to go out west a number of times," says Adam Cook, a senior in natural resource management from Deer River, Minnesota. "[People] really appreciate us and often put signs out during fires, thanking us. I didn't think of fire as a career when I started a couple of years ago, but now I want to pursue it further."

Six years of partnership

Coordinators of the training at UMC are environmental health and safety staff member Tom Feiro, assistant professor Phil Baird, and lab coordinator Nico Bennett, all of the Department of Natural Resources.

At the end of training this spring, UMC had trained more than 225 students at the basic firefighter level in six years.

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