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Thu, March 21

Perfecting firefighting skills draws all ages to academy
Serving, protecting their communities is prime reason for attending Wildfire Academy

Students learn to work as team in the arduous job of cutting line during the field day Wednesday, March 9, for the Basic Wildland Firefighting class at the Arizona Wildfire Academy.
Photo by Les Stukenberg.

Students learn to work as team in the arduous job of cutting line during the field day Wednesday, March 9, for the Basic Wildland Firefighting class at the Arizona Wildfire Academy.

Students in the Basic Wildland Firefighting class, dressed in canary yellow shirts and wearing hardhats, carried their Pulaski tools up a hill Wednesday, March 9, to cut line on the northern edge of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU). This was just one part of their field exercise at the Arizona Wildfire and Incident Management Academy this past week. On Thursday, they headed out Iron Springs Road to work with chain saws.

The training is part of a certificate program that provides students with entry-level wildfire fighting skills. Several in the class are fresh out of high school, others are seasoned professionals, said Ben Roche of Chino Valley Fire (CVFD) and lead instructor of this field day class.

Joe Weathersby is one of the latter students. The systems planner with Arizona Public Service (APS) took the week-long course not to fight fires, but to be a liaison between his company and firefighters.

“I can be the eyes and ears for APS. I’m taking this class to understand the language – the jargon – and be able to communicate what’s happening,” Weathersby said.

For Dee Warneking, 57, with the Sherwood Volunteer Fire Department near Williams, attending the Academy is “just another form of service.” She worked as a critical care nurse for 15 years after retiring from the Air Force, and helped the Sherwood fire department set up its medical program.

“I live there. I want to be able to protect the homes and protect the community,” Warneking said, adding that it’s OK to have service be her lifetime work.

At the other end of the age range is Jake Clawson, 18. He is the family’s third generation of firefighters, and said he wants eventually to hire on to a Type I Hotshot crew. For now, he works with a CVFD crew team.

This year’s Academy is the largest in its 14-year history, said Deputy Incident Commander Dirch Foreman, with 52 classes covering 48 subjects and attracting more than 900 students, instructors, vendors and support staff. ERAU hosts the event during its spring break, and offers on-site dry camping for students. Some prefer RV campers or hotels, but Keenen Reiter, 30, and fellow members of the Jerome Volunteer Fire Department are sleeping outdoors – showers are available.

“Camping in 32-degree weather is part of the whole experience,” Reiter said with enthusiasm. “The Academy has been outstanding. I have not regretted one minute of it.”

Reiter paid for the Academy out of his own pocket, and later learned of scholarship opportunities. He said he would not be requesting reimbursement, and appeared thrilled to be a part of the training that would now allow him to respond to wildfires and travel to other states if needed.

“I had no previous fire experience. I got into this because I like the outdoors, I like working hard and not just sitting. Our department does a lot of stuff, such as responding to vehicle accidents. It’s all encompassing; we try to help out all we can,” he said.

Reiter’s quote for the day: “We’re all here because we’re not all there.”

“That means we’re a little bit crazy – the good kind of crazy,” he was quick to add.

Two other students offered their quotes. Mikayla Baker, 18, a Dewey resident, said, “You put the wet stuff on the red stuff” and “You take every fire very seriously because this is the new norm.”

Doug Williams from Phoenix proffered his alliterative advice with a big laugh: “Prior proper preparation prevents poor performance.”

Roche, the lead instructor, soon called for the students’ attention – spit fires had crossed the cut lines. Two squads marched back up the hill, carrying out a grid exercise and looking for hot spots that didn’t exist on this day, but could in the coming months as the weather heats up and vegetation dries out.

To learn more about the Arizona Wildfire and Incident Management Academy, visit its website at azwildfireacademy.org, or call 928-442-3563.

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