An engine crew hikes up Vale's Rinehart Butte during physical training on June 24, 2021. (ANGELINA KATSANIS/The Enterprise)

VALE - Vale's seasonal wildland firefighters came to the Vale District of the Bureau of Land Management earlier this season with a wide range of backgrounds, experience, and reasons for joining. But all of those differences were set aside when the 2021 fire season in Oregon started in early June. A new community was formed, and together they made it through the ups and downs of an intense month of training.

“People think we just sit around until a fire happens then we go squirt some water. But that’s not the case,” Al Crouch, Vale BLM’s Fire Information Officer and Fire Investigator said.

From daily physical training to classroom learning to field practice, the firefighters work long hours in preparation for the dangerous work they will be doing on real fires. 

Beginning in July, crews were sent to stations across Malheur County, where they spend the rest of the fire season preparing to deploy to a blaze.

“But the training doesn’t end,” Larisa Bogardus, BLM spokeswoman said. “As long as the season’s still going, they’ll always have things to do.”

Aidan Schlupe, a member of the Helitack crew, disassembles his gear after a day of training on June 16, 2021. Vale’s BLM consists of three teams: the Helitack crew for air support, the engine crews for ground support, and the heavy equipment crew to operate the larger machinery such as bulldozers. During fires, the dispatch center can also call on the national crews based in Vale: the Hotshots and the Snake River Valley (SRV) crew, a group initially for migrant workers that was started in Vale.

Darla Allen from Houston, Texas hikes up Rinehart Butte with the rest of the engine crew. Each morning at 8 a.m., the team engages in some form physical training. On the morning of June 24, this training involved a demanding hike up Vale’s Rinehart Butte, which has an elevation of approximately 3,000 feet.

They had to come prepared “in packs and yellows,” meaning they had to hike with all of the equipment they would normally carry to a fire site. Between fireproof clothes and a helmet, heavy packs that include a fire shelter and water, and their hand tool, the engine crewmembers might have to carry 40-55 pounds or more.

“How we feeling?” the leader of the group said to the trainees once they reached the top of the butte.

“Peachy,” replied Allen.

The journey up the Butte was a race against the clock up the steepest part of the hill, but the journey down was easier and on a pre-made path. It was many of the fighters’ first hike up the Butte, and as a group, they scored a time of 21 minutes to the top.

James Bryan, one of the crewmembers from Marion, N.C., said this wasn’t the time they were hoping for. “We did it in 20, but the ‘shots usually do it in 14,” Bryan said, referring to the more experienced and elite team of Hotshots based in Vale.

Aidan Aman, an 18-year-old first-time firefighter, uses the leg press in the on-site gym at the Vale District BLM on June 23, 2021. The gym is well-stocked with a variety of machinery and weights, and most of the 8 a.m. physical trainings take place there. Cooper Besougloff (pictured in reflection) said, “Physical fitness and training is so important in this field, so (the higher-ups) put a lot of emphasis on it.”

Jessica Fenton and other students react to Fireline-qualified Advanced EMT Anthony Hackman’s battle stories of airplane crashes, venomous snake bites, broken legs m and unforeseen allergic reactions on the field during a CPR and First Aid class on June 29, 2021. Classroom education is as important to the training process as field work for these wildland firefighters, and Hackman said they need to not only be prepared for every imaginable scenario, but know how to react to the ones they can’t imagine.

Though real fires are not safe to practice on, cones are an easy substitute. Lena Pieto works in this training exercise to mimic spraying the perimeter of a fire on the last day of training, July 1, during what the BLM called the engine rodeo. The rodeo was the last training event at the Vale District BLM before the crews headed to their stations positioned around Malheur County for the next three months.

Cooper Besougloff (middle) from Virginia learns about proper tool cleanliness and maintenance for his Reinhart hoe at the engine rodeo on July 1, while Jared Rios (left) inspects the ridges of his combination tool. The instructor explained these tools should be washed after each use, sharpened often, protected from rust, and inspected regularly. Otherwise, they could present a danger to fighters when they arrive on a fire.

Nathan Manser uses the butterfly method to wrap the hose up after the engine rodeo’s hoselay training exercise where trainees had to extend the hose from the engine to the imaginary fire without interrupting the hydraulics. “Some call me Michael Phelps,” he jested.

A Helitack trainee practices dropping a load of water during a training exercise on June 16, 2021. To succeed in the task, they needed to collect water from a nearby river and drop it onto a specific area of ground at Vale’s Helibase. The Helitack leader explained that this exercise not only works to enhance each member’s aim, but also helped them practice good communication, landing and takeoff maneuvers, hover hookups, and delivering cargo, all of which are essential field skills.

The Helitack crew disassembles a Bambi Bucket, a collapsible bucket that attaches to a helicopter to drop large amounts of water on fires from above. Crouch said it’s a good strategy for getting to the unreachable parts of the fire and pinpointing exactly where the water needs to go. He said this strategy is also most effective when followed up on the ground.

Robyn Mitton (left) and engine captain Justin Fenton chat together as they extinguish lingering flames and embers with their tools at the edge of the Miller Flats Fire. The fire swept through private land near Ironside, Ore. on July 7, 2021. One of the first notable fires of the season, the trainees could finally put their skills to the test in the field.

One crewmember uses a drip torch to ignite fires inside the "black," the already-burned area, to burn off any remaining hazardous fuel at the Miller Flats fire on July 7, 2021.

The fire grew to only about 100 acres before the various crews, including the Rangeland Fire Protection Association, successfully contained it with a combination of all they had learned in training. Everyone at the scene played a role; the engine crews used their hoses and hand tools to contain the fire to a workable perimeter, the Helitack crew dropped water from helicopters and fire retardant from airtankers, and the heavy equipment crew used bulldozers to clear paths and uproot anything flammable at the perimeter of the fire.

Crouch said they had good communication and responded quickly throughout the fire, which is thanks in no small part to the community building and thorough training the crews went through.

News tip or photo idea? Contact photojournalist Angelina Katsanis [email protected]

Instagram: @malheurenterprise, @akatsmedia

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