June 14, 2008
For Firefighters at Training Event, Learning is By Doing
By JAMIE C RUFF
Firefighting is hands-on, and so is much of its instruction.So when Paul Stoneburner of the Charlottesville office of the Virginia Department of Forestry was lead instructor for a power-saw class, it was in the woods and his students came ready to get dirty. "Most of the learning is by doing," he said.
The weeklong Wildland Fire Academy was held at Longwood University in Farmville for the first time and drew a record 539 participants - including career and volunteer firefighters representing 84 departments from across the state. The training started Tuesday and ended yesterday. The academy is generally held at Fort Pickett, but there was a scheduling conflict this year.
In addition to the firefighters, participants included state employees, mostly from the forestry department but also from the Department of Conservation and Recreation and Department of Emergency Management, as well as federal employees from the U.S. Forestry Service and National Park Service.
Employees from the forestry departments of North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Maryland also participated.
Much of the classroom instruction was backed up with hands-on exercises at the 6,496-acre Prince Edward-Gallion State Forest, located about 15 miles southeast of Longwood.
"This is one of the few offerings of some of these classes in the state of Virginia and even of some classes on the East Coast," said Stoneburner, adding that a few years ago the academy even drew a firefighter from Maine.
Participants took part in 17 courses such as basic and advanced firefighter training, firefighting tactics, fire weather and behavior, fire-engine operations, bulldozer operations, chain saw operations and inci- dent management.
Bryan Alexander of the forestry department in Isle of Wight County and Suffolk said the principles of the leadership class will help him "take charge better."
Alexander said the academy also provided an opportunity to develop relationships with people from other agencies and departments. "It kind of pulls you tighter together whenever you go through training sessions," he said.
Classmate Porter Knight hopes the training will help him and other Hanover County firefighters combat the increasing threat of a woodland fire spreading into the new subdivisions being built in the county.
Already this year, Virginia has had 25,995 acres burned - more acres than in any year since 1963, the forestry department said. As the threat of wildfires continues to grow, so does the need to have people prepared to prevent the loss of lives, homes and other property, State Forester Carl Garrison said.
"The Wildland Fire Academy is the most comprehensive training program we offer each year," he said in a statement. "The more techniques we can teach firefighters, the better-prepared they will be to safely attack and suppress wildland fires."
Ensuring the safety of those fighting a blaze is key, said Alex Williamson of Virginia's forestry department office in Halifax County, who was the lead instructor for the bulldozer class. The academy "gives a lot of the basic ground rules and ability and knowledge to fight a fire . . . and the safety," he said.
As Virginia's population grows, more homes are being built in rural and suburban areas, which puts more people and property at risk. Already this year, firefighters in Virginia have protected 563 homes and 371 structures such as barns, garages and sheds from wildfires, said John Miller, the forestry department's director of resource protection.
But the population growth also means that firefighters can no longer simply plow a line around many of the fires like they used to do, Miller said. "So, if we are to safely attack a wildland fire, we have to teach new ways of battling these dangerous blazes."
Timothy LaLiberte said his transition from a volunteer firefighter in more urban Henrico County to a paid firefighter in rural New Kent County prompted a need for more training and skills.
"I'm learning things here, and I'll be able to take it back to New Kent."
Contact Jamie C. Ruff at (434) 392-6605 or [email protected]
Originally published by Times-Dispatch Staff Writer.
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