For over 40 years, Virginia Tech has been sending its student Wildland Fire Crew to battle forest fires in Virginia. In the 1970s, the crew was 80 members strong, and the U.S. Forest Service would fly them to major wildland fires throughout the Southeast. These days, Virginia Tech’s crew averages about 30 red-card members — those who have passed the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s skills, knowledge, and fitness tests — and averages about seven days of firefighting a semester. The crew is so integral to the region’s firefighting capability that the state is giving the club a used fire truck valued at $35,000.

“It’s a one-ton, four-wheel-drive fire truck agile enough to get around in the woods,” said Professor Shep Zedaker, the crew’s faculty sponsor. “The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia and Virginia Tech’s

Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation are providing the truck, and the U.S. Forest Service is donating a slip-on pumper/tank unit.”

Zedaker trains the student wildland firefighters; most take his Wildland Fire Ecology and Management course, which teaches students how the environment influences fire behavior, how to suppress wildfires, and how fire can be used as a management tool. In the weekly four-hour lab, students practice prescribed burning techniques and fire control.

“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.

Though student crew members have to be prepared to drop everything when duty calls, not every member responds to every fire. When those called reach the site, they join forces with Virginia Department of Forestry or U.S. Forest Service crews to suppress the fire or manage a prescribed burn for wildfire prevention. Firefighting experience gives the students a distinct advantage in finding jobs with state and federal agencies.