Students, state employees learn to fight wildfires


More than 100,000 wildfires burn 4 million acres annually on average in the United States, according to the National Wildlife Coordinating Group Web site,

Kansas might not witness the intensity of burning wildfires that can last for weeks on the West Coast, but its residents have the opportunity to fight the fires firsthand.

The Kansas Forest Service, located within the College of Agriculture, has employees that can instruct students willing to travel to the other side of the country to face the heat.


The Kansas Forest Service is located under the Department of Horticulture, Forestry and Recreation Resources at K-State.

Jason Hartman, fire prevention specialist, is the instructor of the Wildland Fire Management Class that is offered through the Division of Education under the Department of Horticulture, Forestry and Recreation Resources.

Eleven students thrashed through vegetation during their Wildland Fire Management class last week.

The class met at the Blue River Hills, land that is the property of the university, so the students could learn about the use of hand tools and the duties of a hand crew.

“This will be more interesting than a PowerPoint,” Hartman told the class.

Hartman said the class was designed to prepare students to safely and effectively perform a fire assignment.

“Specifically at K-State, it gives them added training in their careers as park managers,” he said.

Hartman said the students earn a National Wildlife Coordinating Group certification after completing the class. He said if students want to gain the experience with fighting wildfires, they are able to do so with the Kansas Forest Service.

Eric Ward, fire planning specialist with the forest service, said the agency hires people to help with the hand crew for the summer, which is the busiest time of year for the forest service, though the fires burn from May to October on the West Coast.

Marc Madison, sophomore in anthropology, said he took the class to prepare for a future summer job with fighting fires. Madison said he had some experience with fire management he could apply to the class.

“I live on a farm, so I’ve done pasture burning,” he said. Hartman and three other employees of the fire-management division of the Kansas Forest Service instructed the students on the use of the tools during the class.

“All these do essentially the same thing – they are for getting fuel off of the surface,” Hartman said.

The class arrived at the site in the early evening to have enough time in the daylight. The students were told they were going “to dig some line,” so they followed a tree line in single file to start the work.

Clad in jeans, T-shirts and work gloves, the students worked their way through the timber to the start of the first pink flag. The class followed pink flags up a steep hill and dug up the vegetation along the way.

Ward said the students were digging to simulate what a hand crew would do in the case of a smaller fire.

Ward said about 20 people are typically on a hand crew, and they create a stopping point for the fire by digging a line around the entire fire.

Hartman said the class started the first week of the semester, and it is offered one evening of the week. The field activity with the use of hand tools was the first the class has done for the semester. FEDERAL DEPLOYMENTS

The Kansas Forest Service started its Cooperative Fire Protection Program in 1962 to help with the suppression of wildland fires, according to the Kansas Forest Service Web site. However, the agency’s involvement with national wildfires did not become active until five years ago.

“The fire program – it’s really grown within the last five years,” he said. “It’s more involved nationally with the training and the western fire fighting. Before, deployments were not coming from state employees.”

Ross Hauck, fire-management coordinator with the forest service, said the federal deployment of the state employees is annual and has been stable for three years.

“We go nationally,” he said. “We go any place that they request us. We tend to go more to the West than we do any place else, but now we do all-risk, which is the U.S. Forest Service’s stance on everything.”

Hauck said the national all-risk stance appeared after the Sept. 11 attacks. He said the U.S. Forest Service is monitored by the Department of Agriculture, and the employees help with everything from Hurricane Katrina to the Greensburg, Kan., recovery.

“It’s very similar to the military system,” Hauck said. “You keep making rank. Myself – I got into the business way too late to fight fires – so I’m a base-camp manager.”

To increase ranks in the forest service, employees have task books they must complete. Hauck said he received his training while helping with the first responders in the Greensburg recovery.

Though Hauck joined the forest service late, he was a volunteer firefighter in Riley County for more than 30 years.

Hauck has been on a few deployments this year. His most recent one was in the Cascade Complex wildland fire in Idaho where he was a base-camp manager. His duties included managing the camp crews and setting up the base camps.

Hauck said the federal agency contacts managers who are closest to the fires, and if they are available, they are expected to leave within hours.

“Now we’re looked at as a legitimate forest service,” Hauck said.

Ward has been deployed to several western states. He said the hand crew does most of the hard work on the ground, and its members are mostly less than 30 years old because it requires a lot of physical work.

“For the most part, it’s a young person’s job,” Ward said.

Ward said the federal deployment saves money for the state because the government reimburses the state for the deployed employees. While deployed, the employees are taken off of the state payroll for that period of time they are deployed.

The federal government reimburses the state for the use of its engines, and the money the state saves helps fund the agency’s programs.

“It’s a money saver on personnel and a money maker on the trucks,” he said.

Ward said about 10 of the 25 full-time staff members have been deployed to help with fire management.

Besides being available for federal deployment, the forestry agency offers programs for rural forestry assistance, state-wide wildlife training and equipment, conservation tree seedlings and urban and community forestry programs, according to the agency’s Web site.