The past few fire seasons in the Northwest have been brutal. Record-breaking blazes burned through the towns of Chelan and Pateros. This year is already starting out dry and hot. That’s why hundreds of firefighters across Washington are prepping for the summer.
The high school in Deer Park, Washington, has transformed into a makeshift fire camp. Tents line the grassy fields. Fire engines sit in the parking lot. A mess area feeds hundreds of people every day.
And just outside the school doors, a class of new firefighters is learning to read the weather. Right now they’re learning about relative humidity. They whirl a tool, called a psychrometer, from a metal chain to help calculate humidity.
“So you’re spinning, and this is going to take two to five minutes, depending on how dry it is out,” the instructor shows them what to do.
Megan Hill is a Battalion Captain with Fire District 4 in North Spokane County.
“Taking that relative humidity means everything. Just because the drier it is, the faster it will burn. It really makes a big impact,” Hill said.
The students are learning essential knowledge for fieldwork in one of dozens of classes. This training academy is the largest in the state — more than 500 firefighters from local, state, and federal agencies have come to Eastern Washington to take classes.
The past few fire seasons in the Northwest have been brutal. Last year record-breaking blazes burned through north central Washington towns like Chelan and Pateros. This year is already starting out dry and hot. That’s why hundreds of firefighters are attending the largest training sessions yet in Washington to prep for the summer.
Here, newbies learn how to fight wildland fires. And veterans develop leadership skills.
Brad Martin fell into this work to give back to the community where he grew up. He started volunteering 35 years ago, and now his two sons are in the business. He says life battling blazes isn’t easy — 14 to 21 days of constant work.
“You gotta be tough. We call it groundhog day, where you have to have a lot of endurance,” Martin said.
The work outdoors is something Jason Gallagher enjoys. He also started out as a volunteer, and now — 18 years later — he runs night classes at the academy. He said even with so many people training, fire departments are still short on volunteers.
Take his home turf in Stevens County — in his fire district, 40 out of the 50 firefighters are volunteers.
“We’re always trying to get more people in. It’s just something we have to do nonstop. We should have 100 volunteers, and and we’ve got 40. So, I need 60 more,” Gallagher said.
Volunteers are a key resource — one that’s always drained, especially as fire seasons become longer and more extreme.
Fires in Okanogan County burned so long and furious last year there weren’t enough volunteers. TV news crews documented people lining up to help.
But those volunteers needed special training — like classes at the academy where students learn about fuels and weather patterns — otherwise they can help out at the fire camp, stuff that needs to be done: bringing food and water, logistics, EMS.
Training camps like the academy in Deer Park help more people earn their “red card,” which means they are certified to fight wildland fires.
Back outside, students look to the sky. How might the clouds affect fire patterns?
Instructor Rick Clarke points to a cluster of distant, puffy clouds.
“This is cumulus that we’re talking about,” Clarke said. “You start watching these, where they’re starting to get black at the bottom. You see that columns starting to get a little bit leaned over.”
“Yeah, I really want to learn more about clouds,” one student remarked.
“The day that you stop learning stuff in the fire-world is the day that you need to get the hell out. I love learning things,” Clarke said.
And these students will keep learning. After three of these training academies, more than 1,000 firefighters will be ready for the summer.
Copyright 2016 Northwest Public Radio