The Vale, Ore. wildfire fighting engine crew hikes up Rinehart Butte during physical training on June 24, 2021. The wildfire fighters are admired and oft-praised in their community for their arduous and life-threatening services. But few understand what goes on inside the gates of the Vale District Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to prepare them for the job. “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. Eastern Oregon's fire season usually starts in July, so the firefighters arrive in early June to start their training. They come to the BLM with a wide range of backgrounds, experiences and reasons for joining. But all of those differences are set aside with each new crop of seasonal firefighters. In July after an intense month of training, crews are sent to stations located across Malheur County, where they spend the rest of the fire season.
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, a recruit from Houston, Tex., hikes with the rest of the engine crew during a training routine. Each morning at 8 a.m., the team engages in physical training of some variety. On the morning of June 24, this training involved an intensive 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 at a fire. Between fireproof clothes and a helmet, heavy packs that include a fire shelter and water, and their hand tool, the engine crew members might be carrying 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.
James Bryan, a crewmember from Marion, N.C., reaches for water from his pack after the engine crew makes it to the top of Rinehart Butte on June 24, 2021. Hiking up an elevation of 3,000 feet while carrying 45 pounds of fire equipment was no easy task, and they completed it in 21 minutes. Still, Bryan said, "We did it in 20 but the 'shots usually do it in 14," referring to the more elite and national firefighting team of hotshots located in Vale.
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 instead. 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.
Fireline-certified Advanced EMT Anthony Hackman has been working in the field for decades as a medic in the field. During this CPR and First Aid class on June 29, 2021. Hackman stressed the importance of needing to not only be prepared for every imaginable scenario, but knowing how to handle the ones they can’t imagine.
Jessica Fenton and other students react to Hackman’s battle stories of airplane crashes, venomous snake bites, broken legs, 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.
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.”
Besougloff impresses the crowd, including recruits Darla Allen (left) and Danielle Kona (right) with a muscle-up. “He’s a beast,” Connelly Schlupe, a well-seasoned 23-year-old fighter said.
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 crewmembers 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 reinhard at the engine rodeo on July 1, 2021 while Jared Rios (left) inspects the ridges on his combination tool. These tools need to be washed after use, sharpened often, protected from rust, and inspected regularly; otherwise, they will present a danger to fighters on the field.
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.
Cooper Besougloff from Virginia sprays a cone placed to simulate a fire line at the "engine rodeo" on July 1, 2021. The rodeo concludes their training and the fighters were sent accross the county that night. “But the training never ends,” Larisa Bogardus, BLM spokeswoman said. “As long as the season’s still going, they’ll always be learning."
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, Nathan Weiner, explained that this exercise not only worked on each member’s aim, but also helped them practice communication, landing and takeoff, hover hookups, and delivering cargo.
Nathan Schlupe on the Helitack crew works to disassemble 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. This strategy is also most effective when followed up on the ground.
A single engine air tanker (SEAL) drops fire retardant on the mostly-burnt vegetation to prevent remaining, unburnt fuel from igniting later.
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.