Academy Blog Series - Battalion 42

Week 16   Wildland Fire Training

Weekend weather watch prompted a change in Wildland Field Exercise plans for the training scheduled at Cal State University Channel Islands. Two days were originally penned in for Tuesday and Wednesday. However, weather forecasts identifying a 100% chance of rain forced a jump in plans. Captain Bouska made the necessary cadre contacts while I communicated with Battalion Officer Minicucci and Battalion President Whitby. On a fly and a true punt, everything came together in the eleventh hour. Minicucci and Whitby were able to get the word out, accomplishing a considerable amount of organizing prior to Monday morning's early arrival.

And early it was, cadets began to arrive at 0600. A long checklist of tasks was accomplished in a fast couple of hours, with all efforts working towards a 0800 departure in strike team fashion. Apparatus prep and equipment loading started things off. Engine 38's water tank had to be filled, 1,800 feet of brush hose had to be rolled, packed and appropriately loaded, additional fittings and appliances placed in apparatus compartments, hand tools for fire line construction were loaded along with cadet rehab supplies. The travel order was determined the night before allowing for the prompt positioning of vehicles.  Once the transporting vehicles were in position and loaded a driver and officer’s briefing was conducted. Mapping, communication methods during travel, medical plan in the event of a traffic accident enroute, vehicle travel position and the make and model of the last car were noted. Acting Battalion Officer Gratz conducted a radio check on channel one, confirmed his personnel accountability and off we drove, departing only ten minutes behind schedule at 0810. Great job 42 for pulling it all together.

We were headed to a model airplane field strip located on a curvy dirt road named Old Dairy Road. The area has open parking, portable restrooms and great hillsides to train on. The Battalion pulled in and parked in a chevron pattern, donned their brush gear and prepared for the morning briefing.  Cadet safety and the possibility of injury or fatigue were discussed and rehab identified.  Crew rotation through the day’s lessons would run in the same manner as standard drill days on academy grounds, four stations, fire shelter deployment, progressive hose lays, simple hose lays and fire line construction, each with ninety minute durations.

The shelter deployment station served more as a review with a greater focus on tool use for clearing a safe working area.  The surrounding vegetation was light but still offered a challenge when scrapping down to the dirt.  On the command to deploy, crews had to clear their area, set up their shelter and be prepared to hold their position for the duration as the life-threatening situation passed.  Progressive hose lays forced cadets up a moderate slope.  Crews worked together to prepare the first sections of hose for the lay.  A call for water, a nozzle adjustment and a spray pattern wetting the area at the base of the fire line and up the hill they hiked.  The same techniques learned in week 15 were utilized.  Each crew advanced the charged hose line up hill, prepped new hose sections to be attached, clamped the wet line then attached the dry.  Another call for water, a hose clamp released, water sprayed and farther uphill they advanced, progressively hose laying 600’-800’ of line.

The simple hose lay station had cadets working individually utilizing a concept similar to progressive lays.  With the simple lay, each cadet had to perform all tasks on their own.  An area on the hillside with the softest incline was selected for practice.  Unlike the name, the assignment is no simple lay.  Cadets stood on the dirt road at the base of the hill, hose pack donned.  They removed the first section of hose, rolled it out, attached the nozzle then called for water.  Once the nozzle was adjusted, water was sprayed in a circular pattern up the incline.  When the cadet arrived to the point of a fully stretched line, the second section of hose was rolled out downhill, charged line clamped, new line attached and another 100’ advanced.  The work didn’t finish at deploying.  Once the hose line was advanced to the objective, the cadet had to pick all 200’ of that hose during the return to the engine parked on the road, a distance away.

At the fire line construction station, cadets learned the sequence of tool use in a line of workers cutting vegetation and scraping down to dirt level along a fire’s edge.  Line construction around the fire’s edge separates flames from unburned material and helps to contain a given fire in its area.  On many occasion however, winds, radiant heat and blowing embers push the fire across the line and spot fires ignite.  The crews worked together to cut their line up slope, another labor intensive drill station.

The rotations continued throughout the day with lunch onsite and an end of day After Action Review of operations.  The return trip was conducted in the travel manner as the morning.  Upon arrival to the academy, drivers pulled their vehicles to bunker row, unloaded their brush gear then reported to the app bay mat for a short briefing identifying company clean up assignments.  The Battalion made quick work of what needed to be accomplished prior to release and was dismissed by Acting Battalion Officer Gratz, from the apparatus bay mat.

At 0700 the next morning, Officers talked strategy of how they were to continue with academy demobilization.  The demobe assignments for this day was to have Company Officer Hamilton in charge of stripping the remaining tools and equipment from Engine 1’s compartments, Company Officer’s Brinkman and Villavicenio responsible for detailing their crew’s assigned engines, with Company Officer Gullo accountable to confine equipment removed earlier from Engine 4 to a smaller footprint on the apparatus floor.  When all crews were finished, the Battalion was to divide and detail Squad 1 and Engine 9.  E9 was slated to be on display at graduation and was in need of a thorough wipe down.

The last viewing of the grad movie started the classroom session.  The Wildland focus of the day would have the cadets indoors all day, timely because it rained heavily all day.  The material to be covered had the group discussing methods of maintaining situational awareness while performing suppression duties on a brush fire.  S-133, Look Up, Look Down, Look Around was the name of the course covered, seemingly simple name or concept.  However, fire line conditions can move out of control in an instant.  Remaining keenly aware of all of your surroundings when you out there helps you make sound decisions as you react to rapidly changing conditions.

Another rainy day schedule was planned for Wednesday.  The morning’s demobe assignment had the Battalion come together in the classroom at 0700.  With Chief Warner present, manila envelopes were distributed to its rightful cadet.  The packs contained all of the original certifications each cadet had been awarded throughout the semester.  Every cadet was assigned to inventory their envelope and confirm all certifications were present.  A proud moment for the group as they held the certs they worked so hard to obtain over the past 15 weeks.  Once completed, each cadet returned the envelope with initialed documentation as a follow up.  As paperwork was submitted, each cadet was able to view their final academy grade.

After documentation duties were complete, cadets were asked to retrieve and inspect their SCBA harnesses.  These units were used considerably throughout the semester and now needed to be assessed for the readiness of the next battalion.  Since all structural firefighting lessons were now complete, the harnesses, upon inspection could also be returned to the academy inventory.  Next up was helmet, book storage and locker clean out, reality of academy completion setting in deeper, as each cadet emptied their lockers and cubby storage spots in the classroom.  Cadets quietly sounded with disappointments as they removed their names from their helmets, bitter sweet.

A large floor model sand table was reserved in a classroom a short distance away for Wednesday’s rainy day exercises.  The lessons-incidents would involve structure protection during brush fires in the wildland urban interface, WUI.  Cadets surrounded the table, some sitting on their helmets, others kneeling comfortably with their elbows resting on the side wall supports.  A number of HTs were utilized with all traffic to be transmitted over channel one.  The sand was molded into a community with a dozen residences placed in clusters throughout the hills.  The fire was yarned off east of the newly shaped community.  Addresses were identified and assigned to model homes, coinciding with overhead projected photos, a pretty cool set up.

The Ridge Fire was burning its way towards the community.  Crews were assigned to triage the structures to determine what protection, if any, the houses would need to withstand the passing fire.  If the decision was made to stay at a given property to prep it or protect it, crews needed to establish LCES and describe what actions they were to take.  Communications were restricted to radio contact during this phase.  Transmissions lasted for a couple of hours.  Below are examples of a three different engine company leaders, Cadet Hill on Engine 3, Cadet Smith on Engine 8 and Charlie Company Officer Gullo on Engine 5.

Foxtrot, Engine 3……Engine 3 go ahead……Foxtrot I posted a lookout at the top of the ridge up by 16 Gann to see if the fire is advancing closer to the river……Copy, you have a lookout established at 16 Gann, what’s the call sign for that lookout?......His ID will be Gann Lookout…..Copy Gann Lookout…..

Foxtrot from Engine 8…..Engine 8 go ahead……Be advised the fire has reached our trigger point, we’re going to evacuate back across the creek to our safety zone……I copy you’re moving across the creek, do we have any other resources on that side of the creek?......negative, but if you could send one ambulance our way to get our civilian checked out to make sure his alright……I copy, any way to move the civilian out of that area so we don’t have to have a medic come in?......Affirmative, we’ll bring the civilian out……..Copy, what is the condition of the civilian?.......The civilian has slight heat exposure but appears to be stable…..Copy heat exposure but stable….

Foxtrot, Engine 5…..Engine 5 go ahead…..Update, we have a lookout on the south side on 37 Sandy Lane, we have an escape route and safety zone set, we have a secondary water supply which is a pool, 500 gallons…..Copy 500 gallon pool, established LCES……

At the end of the incident, each crew leader had to explain the reasoning behind their decisions made and trigger points noted, relevant and comprehensive training.  Tactics and strategy related to WUI structure protection continued throughout the period, with on scene reports practiced during the late afternoon. 

The last day of instruction, Thursday, December 4th, 2014, started with a Battalion briefing in the redesigned student library, proud roars as everyone arrived ready to hear the day’s plan.  Completing academy demobilization, taking a morning group photo dressed in uniform, working the “Duck Fire” in the mud, taking an afternoon group photo dressed in mud clad brush gear, cleaning and returning that mud clad brush gear and lastly conducting the final academy summary prior to dismissal.  What a great day we had planned.

Facilities maintenance was the first order, clean the student break room, academy refrigerator and locker room showers.  Once complete, cadets were instructed relocate to the hose drying rack and bunker row to acquire all hose, tools and equipment necessary to work the “Duck Fire”.  This fire would be managed in the duck pond area located west on the Fire Tech Building.  Recent rains made for perfect muddy conditions-I’m typing with all smiles.

The incident was run by the cadets acting in a variety of roles.  Both morning and afternoon exercises would be similar with crews swapping assignments.  For instance, companies functioning as hand crews in the morning would work as engine crews progressively laying hose in the afternoon.  Division leaders, engine captains and engineers, and hand crew leaders were appointed by the drill instructors, with Charlie Officer Gullo and Alpha Officer Hamilton operating as Divisions A & B leaders during the morning and Cadets Minyard and Stevens serving as Division Leaders during the afternoon, excellent radio communications throughout the exercise.

Hose was progressively laid, fire lines were cut and shelters deployed.  An impromptu water drop drill was initiated as Ventura County Fire’s Helicopter flew over.  They enjoyed the role play, activating their signal for a drop forcing the cadets to hit the mud face down in an effort to protect themselves from the simulated water release.  An applause goes out to the entire Battalion for a commanding performance for running their own exercise and conducting their own After Action Reviews.

The last group photo was taken with all cadets piling on the soon to be surveyed Engine 4.  Muddy faces and big teeth smiles said everything, what a great end to an awesome semester.  42, you lived every part of your train to survive motto, as you worked toward successful academy completion.  This chapter of your life will close in a couple days at graduation.  Stay in touch and support one another as you advance through application processes and firefighter trainee appointments and ultimately your careers.  You’ve done well.

Captain Crudo