Utah wildfire academy prepares fire crews


Ben Winslow
Deseret Morning News
Copyright 2007 The Deseret News Publishing Co.

RICHFIELD, Utah — The tents are spread out across the lawns of the Snow College South campus.

The events center has been commandeered as a makeshift "command post," with tables for human resources and information. Bulletin boards have been created with the latest information on wildfires.

The 2007 Utah Wildfire Academy was under way, with more than 320 students and 100 instructors participating in classes and trainings to fight wildfires this year.

"The organizational structure's like an incident," said Lee Freeman, incident commander for the fire academy.

The academy is set up to run like a Type III wildfire. Firefighters from 10 states (the farthest away is Alaska) are here to undergo refresher courses or take their first steps to being a wildland firefighter. For the 60 or so "newbies," it's their first entry into the world of firefighting.

The academy will culminate in a "live fire" exercise, where firefighters put their training to the test in a simulation of a wildfire situation.

The job can be long, hot and physically demanding. Firefighters on the front lines can work 12-plus hour days, building fire lines, lighting back fires and putting out hotspots.

Fire watchers dare not make predictions about what this year's wildfire potential is in Utah.

"What do they always say? 'If you have a wet winter, you'll have a dry summer. If you have a dry winter, you'll have a dry summer,"' Freeman said. "I never make any predictions. We're going to have to wait and see."

This year's academy has a renewed focus on firefighter safety, in light of the death of Spencer Koyle, a BLM firefighter who died in the 2006 Devil's Den Fire that burned thousands of acres in Millard County.

"There will be many, many firefighters who will learn from it and we may prevent it from happening again," said Gayle Sorenson, a friend of Koyle's.

Koyle's friends are planning to honor him by erecting a memorial at the Fillmore Interagency Fire Station and building a 2.5-mile trail in Oak Creek Canyon — near the spot where the firefighter died. At the academy, they have been raising money through raffles, auctions and recruiting volunteers for the projects.

"I'd like to provide my help," firefighter Dan Osterkamp said as he walked up to Sorenson. "I was up on the ridge that day."

Sorenson appeared grateful for the offer.

"There's folks that need to do it. It's kind of a healing thing," she told him.

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