Students wiped soot off their faces and shielded their eyes from smoke on Oct. 25 as they trained to become certified to fight wildfires.
About 80 forestry and fire management students worked at various stations managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point Fire Crew.
“This is a mutual agreement with the DNR,” said Alec Cannata, the UWSP fire crew public information officer. “We help them with wildfire suppression, and they help us with wildfire training.”
Brian Gorman, a member of the UWSP fire crew, said it gives the students one-on-one time with the DNR and helps them build relationships for future employment. Gorman said when students go home during the summer, their training continues because they can ride with the DNR in their local area to stop wildfires.
“They have a range of options with this certification,”Cannata said.
Cannata said after the certification, students are able to assist in wildfire control and prescribed burns. Prescribed burns restore a natural process to the land by helping control invasive species, restoring habitats and reducing the risk of wildfires.
In order to learn how to control prescribed burns and wildfires, students participated in a dry mop-up where they had to put out a fire without using water. Students pulled on gloves, secured hard hats and strapped on fire boots for protection.
Fire crew cache manager Mark McDonald said students used tools like Pulaskis and axes to strip away the burning bark, and fire shovels to smother the fire with dirt.
McDonald said the students had to wait until the fire was completely extinguished and the smoke subsided to steam.
While the students were busy extinguishing the fire, a chemistry professor and his research student were using the dry mop-up station to test new instruments measuring firefighters’ carcinogen exposure level in wood smoke.
“We are measuring the level of aromatic hydrocarbons which are compounds that are known and suspected carcinogens,” said Dave Snyder, a professor of chemistry. “We are out here testing out instrument pack and making sure they work OK.”
Snyder said this is the first time he is measuring the exposure firefighters would receive of a compound that penetrates deep into the lungs.
While some students hacked away at burning bark, others were searching for hidden instructors in the woods. They were armed with only a compass and a map.
Brad Kildow, a Wisconsin DNR representative, was on an assignment with a young man who solely relied on a Global Positioning System.
“The GPS died, so the moral of the story is you can’t rely on GPS so you have to use a compass and a map to find the instructor,” Sarah Gollnick, a forestry technician, said.
Gollnick was pretending to be a dispatcher, and the squads of students reported their progress and the weather conditions via radio.
“Weather observations are important because they are the main factor in how fire behaves,” Gollnick said.
Cannata said fire changes quickly. When firefighters know the wind speed, relative humidity and temperature they will be able to predict how the fire could change more accurately.
Gollnick graduated from UWSP and took the certification course.
“I respond to wildfires and I also do forestry work when fires aren’t around,” Gollnick said.
Gollnick explained the fire season varies.
“The last two seasons have been super slow and there have not been a lot of wildfires,” Gollnick said. “The season before those two, and before I began working, was very busy and there were many fires that year.”
When the fire season is slow, Gollnick said forestry technicians alert public of fire danger. They also regulate burning permits.
When the fire died down and students wiped their hands, they were ready to fight wildfires across the country.