Students on Wildfire's Front Line
February 15, 2011
The Virginia Tech Wildland Fire Crew helped battle two recent wildfires that broke out days apart in Montgomery County. Student firefighters joined crews from the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) and several local fire departments to fight a blaze on Price Mountain just west of Blacksburg on November 9. That fire had barely been contained before a second fire broke out in the McCoy area four days later. The VDOF has ruled arson as the cause of both fires, which burned a total of almost 450 acres, and has offered a reward for information leading to an arrest.
The students who serve on the Virginia Tech Wildland Fire Crew have earned their “red card,” meaning they have completed training and passed both written and physical tests to be certified to fight wildfires. Most all of them take Professor Shep Zedaker’s Wildland Fire Ecology and Management course to qualify for certification. “The course is one of the few university classes that actually qualifies students to work in a specific field related to their program of study,” said Zedaker, who serves as the crew’s faculty sponsor.
The techniques learned in the classroom and during outdoor labs come in handy when duty calls. “When you first get to a fire, you go into initial attack,” reported senior Lindsey Curtin, who serves as the crew’s fire information officer. “You have to size it up, figure out what’s going on. We could be digging a line, putting the fire out with water, or putting in a hose lay. There are a lot of ways of attacking a fire.”
Though crewmembers have to be prepared to drop whatever they are doing when duty calls, not every member responds to every fire. “We might have 20 people on the crew, but at any one fire we could have maybe five to 10 people,” said Curtin. Crewmembers are dispatched to fires a dozen or so days per year. Once on site, the students join crews from the VDOF or the U.S. Forest Service.
Many crewmembers go on to seasonal or long-term positions as wildland firefighters. “Our students can and have gone as far as Type I Incident Commanders, which is the highest operational position one can achieve in wildland firefighting,” Zedaker reported.
“It’s definitely exciting. Every fire’s different and that’s why I enjoy doing it,” Curtin added.