Wildland fire school returns to Sweet Home

By Scott Swanson
Of The New Era/Lebanon Local

More than 200 wildland firefighters and instructors have convened in Sweet Home this week to participate in the annual five day Mid-Willamette Valley Interagency Wildland Fire School.

This is the first time since 2019 that the school, which had been a regular on Sweet Home’s annual calendar prior to the COVID pandemic, is being held. Officials from the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Oregon Department of Forestry, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service host the training to prepare firefighters for the rigors of fighting fire, both in Oregon’s forests and in rural-urban interface areas.

Co-Incident Commanders Craig Pettinger, Unit Forester for ODF in Sweet Home, and Chris Mushrush, Fire Planner for Northwest Oregon Interagency Fire Management, are leading the effort to train firefighters in tactical skills and safety.

“Fire School provides crucial education and training in wildland fire to new firefighters and gives veteran firefighters a chance to refresh their skills and explore leadership opportunities,” Mushrush said.

Trainees learn about fire behavior, suppression tactics, weather, map and compass use, teamwork, leadership, safety, use of engines, tools and hose lays, and fire investigation. To mimic life in a real fire camp, students sleep in tents at Sweet Home High School and eat their meals communally.

The training culminates with a live fire exercise on Friday, June 30, just outside of Sweet Home. The live fire will be a controlled burn of slash piles created by forest management activities. This presents trainees with a final challenge: applying their newly acquired skills and techniques to suppress and mop up a real fire.

“Cascade Timber Consulting, a local forest landowner, provides a new field site each year and we are very grateful,” Pettinger said. “The live fire exercise provides an invaluable training experience – working in smoke, hiking through uneven terrain, and working closely with crew members to dig fireline – these are all things they’ll experience this season as wildland firefighters.

Safety principles of fire training include wearing protective gear, safe use of tools and looking out for hazards. “Safety is paramount in every aspect of wildland firefighting, and it begins with our training exercises.Working together in a collaborative training setting improves communications and builds effective relationships for all agencies to draw on during fire season.”

This year, the field site used for the live fire exercise will be located north of Foster Lake, approximately two miles northeast of Sweet Home. Fire officials urge the public to use caution as there will be increased fire traffic in the area and the potential for visible smoke on Friday, June 30.