Shelter deployments are uncommon but can be life-saving in the wildland fire world. Strong shifting winds contributed to their use during the Bridger Foothills Fire last year. Big Sky Fire Department trains for shelter deployment yearly. PHOTO BY JANA BOUNDS

Preparation is paramount for the wildland fire season

Big Sky Fire Department does arduous testing for National Wildfire Coordinating Group qualification

There are an abundance of predictions of what the fire season will look like for the west, but Big Sky Fire Department (BSFD) Battalion Chief Jeff Bolton notes that at the end of the day, anything can happen. Between fuels available, iignitions, and the factor of how much rain will fall in the spring and summer – “there’s a ton of variables.” Preparation is paramount in their line of work.

BSFD recently conducted the RT-130 or the annual wildland refresher training, which is a yearly qualification that allows for them to earn their “red cards” or the qualifications that make it possible for them to cross state lines and help with wildland situations. While there are different levels of qualifications available through the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, BSFD elects to do the most grueling – because it allows for them to be the most useful.

“We are an all-hazards department: we do everything from EMS, wildland, structure fires, hazmat. Anytime somebody calls 911, if it’s not a law enforcement issue, it’s generally something we are involved with,” Bolton said.

For the first part of the test, they donned 45-pound vests, and all traveled three miles in less than 45 minutes “to simulate the work that needs to be done in a wildland event.”

With “Eye of the Tiger” softly playing from an observer’s phone as well as good natured heckling from timers – and even from some motorists – they all made the cut. Some even heckled each other a bit on the trek – there were a few mustache jokes overheard.

Shelter deployment was next on the docket for the testing. Bolton explained that shelter deployment is not common, although it happened last year during the Bridger Foothills Fire.

“It’s a big deal. Our goal is to never, ever, ever, ever have to use these, but we train on it every year to make sure we are squared away if we get into that position,” he said.

There is a strategy to it: They look for a safe zone, an area that naturally has no fuel, if they do not find one, then they burn out an area or they dig down into the dirt underneath where the shelter is to be deployed. The idea is to make sure there is no vegetation that can allow for the fire to creep up beneath the shelter. No bigger than mummy sleeping bags and thin, fire fighters maneuver into them as quickly as possible and then collapse on the ground, with the goal of having no clothing visible from the outside. They aim their feet toward the flames and their heads away from the flames – to protect airways. It is the last-ditch effort for survival for “when you are in a really bad position and you have a bad escape route.”

While Bolton explained they are not jumping out of aircraft into a bunch of fuel and they are cautious, BSFD firefighters do hike in and do other tasks that can get them into predicaments. While some aspects of wildland fire are predictable, the winds shift all the time – a factor in the shelter deployments at the Bridger Foothills Fire – and a reason for the annual training.

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