Firefighters from more than 25 fire departments from five states came to Gering to practice training to battle wildfires in a controlled environment.
One of those firefighters, Matt Burkhardt, of Laramie, Wyoming, traveled with fellow firefighters from his department, the Big Laramie Volunteer Fire Department. Burkhardt has been with his department for three years and did search and rescue work prior to that.
The training academy offered “an opportunity to step back the pace, get some mentorship and practice some techniques,” Burkhardt said. “It is an opportunity to get some practice in a controlled environment.”
Alyssa Sanders, public information officer with the Nebraska Emergency Management, explained that the West Nebraska Engine Academy is a full-scale event that allowed firefighters to work through evolutions, or skills that firefighters and their teams need to master. A list of skills is provided to each of the firefighters, depending on the level that they are needing to master, from basic firefighting skills to incident command. Departments and firefighters work through National Incident Management Systems (NIMS) and National Wildlife Coordinating Group (NWCG).
“It’s more about getting in repetitions and evolutions in to practice skills,” Sanders said.
The engine academy is run as a Type III incident, which means that multiple agencies or jurisdictions are coming together for an extended incident. This year, Sanders said, the academy had more participation from air resources than it ever has before.
Burkhardt had been checking off skills in the beginning level incident command. With the differing topography of Cedar Canyon Wildlife Management Area and the Buffalo Creek Wildlife Management Areas, firefighters were able to practice grassland and forestry skills, Burkhardt said.
During the exercise, planes from the Nebraska Forestry Service and helicopters from the Nebraska National Guard dropped retardant and water. BlackHawk helicopters could drop 250 gallons to more than 2,000 gallons of water, depending on the size of the helicopter.
It’s not often that departments get to train with air support, though “it is something that comes up in real life,” Sanders said.
One official noted that firefighters need to learn how to communicate effectively with air support to drop retardant in specific places, as each drop is costly. Practice also benefits the pilots.
“We want to make sure in an incident that we are getting the resources where we need it,” Sanders said.
Firefighters are also able to come together and establish a comfort level with departments that may respond to area wildfires.
Burkhardt said, “A lot of different departments are out here working together. All the trucks are different, depending on the specific department, so it can be interesting to see that. You can also learn from other firefighters who are at different training levels.”
Skills such as interacting with the public, who may stop to watch an incident or are anxious or scared when one occurs, to addressing environmental or cultural resources are all outlined among the training. Skills are not “directly tied to suppression of a fire, but are important in the handling of the overall incident.”
Burkhardt said that the West Nebraska Engine Academy is the only large-scale training opportunity located in the Panhandle and eastern Wyoming.
Sanders praised the Gering Fire Department, under the direction of Gering Fire Chief Nathan Flowers, has planned and organized the academy for the last three years.
“Basically, Nathan recognized a need to get them (fire departments) together and has worked through the process and the planning,” she said.
The department also does a lot of preparation before the academy, including establishing fire outbreaks in the grassy and forested areas to ensure the exercise stays safe and well-managed. The exercise also allows prescribed burning to occur in the wildlife management areas, clearing away dead and invasive vegetation that could fuel a wildfire.
Sanders said the exercise is also made possible by the following agencies: Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Gering Fire Department, Banner County Fire Department, Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, Nebraska Forest Service, Nebraska National Guard, Nebraska State Fire Marshal’s Training Division, Nebraska State Fire Marshal’s Office, Scotts Bluff County Mutual Aid District, US Forest Service, and the State of South Dakota Division of Wildland Fire.