Usually back home in Georgia, I would have spent Spring break at the Augusta National or trying to escape the hordes of golf traffic but this year I spent spring break trying to become a Wildland Firefighter.
Sunday evening, myself and 17 other ProRanger cadets caravanned our way to College Park, TX, where our Program Manager fed our travel weary bodies and briefed us on the week ahead. We were to report to Big Thicket National Preserve around 2pm Monday to meet with Ranger Monk and Ranger Jeansome per earning our Red Cards. A Red Card is like a license that says you have the appropriate training and physical ability to work on a wildland fire crew.
Monday, we met the Fire office staff and moved into our quarters, the breathtakingly beautiful Camp Urland. The first day we went swimming, hiking, and kayaking. It was awesome!
At first light it was time to rise and head over to the Fire Office for a little hand- on instruction. The 3rd year cohort learned about tools commonly used in wildland firefighting and techniques used in controlling forest infernos.
Did you know 99% of fires are fought with foam, dirt, or controlled burns? Water is rarely used to combat wildland fires, while water is essential to the control of structural fires. I also learn how crews predict a fire’s behavior! It was a great class!
We then donned our PPE (Personal protective equipment) and cut a control line in the woods. I used a crow’s foot and was practically drenched in sweat by the end of It. Last but not least we had to deploy a fire shelter. Hilariously known as baked potatoes, a fire shelter is the last resort of firefighters. To quote the training, “If you have to deploy your fire shelter that mean someone, somewhere has made a horrible mistake…” It sucked being under there on an overcast 78F day. Imagine how it would feel to be under there while a 1200F+ fire was raging around you!
We met up with the 2nd year cohort and returned to Camp Urland to help in a stewardship project where we cleaned up some campsites. Unfortunately, myself and another cadet were separated from the group. By the time we caught up with them, the project was complete. No winks here! In all seriousness we may have hiked a mile or two searching for them! The cadet I was with pointed out some deer tracks and that was really neat to look at. Thankfully we met up with the Camp’s caretaker and he pointed us in the right direction but it was too late L.
Back at camp, someone fired up the grill and we got the opportunity to bond, talk, play, and learn with one another. One of the 2nd year cadets told me what to expect this summer in Alaska and another cadet showed some pictures and videos he had of the Last Frontier state.
The next day was the arduous duty day, the dreaded pack test. Every year, to keep their red cards current, fire fighters must walk three miles in 45 minutes while wearing a 45 lb pack, or vest.
If it sounds simple, try it.
I carpooled to the track with three other cadets and pretended like I wasn’t nervous. I had been training with only a 20lb vest. I put on the 45 lb pack and it felt okay but that didn’t ease my anxiety. One of the Rangers was kind enough to offer his services as the “rabbit.” As long as we stay in front of him, we would pass, if we lagged behind, we would fail. If you ran you were disqualified. If you were too far behind they would pull you off the track. If you looked like you were about to faint they would pull you of the track. There was an EMT on scene because the chance of death or serious injury was that high.
We warmed up, adjusted our packs and we were off. I had a good start but I just couldn’t pick up a solid rhythm (my left leg is longer than my right leg and any one of my friends can attest to the resulting clumsiness, it makes for a curious tread pattern on my shoes to say the least). By lap three the rabbit lapped me and it was fight to stay focused and positive while watching him get further and further ahead of me. By lap 7 the rabbit was ahead by a whole lap and Ranger Monk asked if I wanted to stop. I said yes and took a cool-down lap around the track. Chief Ranger Regina Cline of Amistad National Park walked with me to cheer me up. She gave me some great advice about what to do differently next time and how to not let a momentary loss turn into a mind focused on defeat. Ranger Cline was great, her experiences, sense of humor, and encouragement was invaluable. I’m so lucky to be surrounded by such a wealth of insights that are held by people who love to teach! I bet you have the same access to experts looking to become mentors.
Do you have a mentor? What was the coolest thing you learned from your mentor? If you don’t have a mentor and are in search of one, I would start at my school or go to sba.gov and check out the SCORE members in my area.
So I didn’t get my red card but I did get a great week with some amazing people. Last Monday, I walked around my neighborhood with my 20 lb vest and got my rhythm straight. I will have that red card before May 24….