‘War stories,’ unique training motivate firefighters
Sun News Service
It looked like the kind of sandbox you might find at a daycare center, complete with toy trucks and miniature trees ” but the people circled around the sand table were firefighters, and they were not playing around.
The sandbox-on-steroids is part of tactical decision-making exercises that are run every year as part of a refresher training for employees and firefighters working for the Tahoe National Forest.
Refresher courses such as these are particularly pertinent as the new year’s fire season gets under way; Friday, a strike team of about 20 firefighters from Nevada County Consolidated, Higgins, Ophir Hill, Rough and Ready, and Peardale-Chicago Park fire districts headed down to the Santa Barbara blaze.
The sand-filled tables represent actual fires from 2008, including the Yuba River and American River fire complexes, and the sand is modeled into a three-dimensional representation of the terrain of the fires. Colored wires stand in for roads, streams, the fire itself and the fire line being built. Trucks and trees add verisimilitude.
“We can build up a scenario, make the terrain look the way we want it,” explained Tahoe National Forest Fir’
The two-day training, which was held this year at the end of April at the Nevada County Fairgrounds, is intended to “get everybody refocused on the basics of firefighting,” Pincha-Tulley said.
“We spent the first day reviewing a variety of ‘watch-out’ situations,” said Public Affairs Officer Ann Westling.
Recognizing signs of fatigue and safety issues while constructing fire lines were some of the topics covered, she added.
The second day involved using the sand tables to review the “lessons learned” from the previous season’s fires, Westling said.
“We tell a lot of war stories,” Pincha-Tulley said. “Firefighters are great to tell on themselves, because that’s how we learn… We let our own folks come out with the things they learned that really drive a lesson home.”
One of the lessons discussed with the American River complex fire was a decision made to deal with what Westling called “increased fire behavior” ” when a fire starts burning faster or hotter.
Based on limited resources and the rugged and rocky nature of the terrain, a fire crew decided they were not going to be able to attack the fire at that point and needed to remain in a safety zone until the fire behavior diminished, Westling said.
A safety zone is a fairly large area that is mostly free of vegetation and is a critical part of any firefighting effort, she explained.
“The crew pulled back, they did everything right,” Pincha-Tulley said. “They were aware of the indicators and they had a secure place where they were not harmed.”
While all the mountain ranges in California are “pretty wicked,” Pincha-Tulley noted, the Tahoe National Forest has some additional challenges.
“We have some interesting wind channels, so not only do you get into some really steep places, then you add wind into the mix,” she said, adding that this can cause a fire to actually jump across a steep canyon.
That’s why the training exercises, including the sand tables, are vitally important.
“The goal is to get everyone home safe and sound every time,” Pincha-Tulley said.
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