MADISONVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Students at Hiwassee College learn
the dangers of wildfiers and how to find them in Tennessee's only
two-year forest technology program.
William Edwards, who heads the program at the private college,
trains students in various aspects of forest fire management, such
as reading topographic maps, fire suppression and radio
communication.
"Safety is the paramount thing I try to teach," Edwards said.
"Number two would be understanding weather phenomena and fire
behavior."
To give students "real world" exposure, Edwards invites state
officials and U.S. Forest Service technicians to his classes. In
addition, each year, Edwards oversees a controlled burn over 25 of
Hiwassee's grassy acres.
During the controlled burn, Edwards starts the fire, while state
officials plow the fire line around the site - digging up mineral
soil that fire won't burn through. Students then widen the fire
line by burning the grass in front of it - a technique called
"back fires," used by forest firefighters around the country.
After the school year, Edwards encourages students to sign up
for internships that take them around the nation fighting forest
fires.
"Those Santa Ana winds are so dangerous," Edwards said. "Our
students learn about them in class. They're very fast-moving and
shift constantly in a climate that's already arid."
Although Edwards is not sure if any of his former students are
helping the San Diego crews, he stays in touch with many who have
helped combat some of the country's fiercest blazes. This past
summer, the government selected four of his students to help fight
the Gila National Forest fire in New Mexico.
Class of 2004 student Lance Milner, along with 2003 alumnus Andy
Mayfield, both of Athens, 1999 alumnus Josh Veal and 1996 alumnus
Greg Kirkland, both of Coker Creek, joined a 20-member crew of
mostly forest fire veterans.
"I flew in on a helicopter and could see the smoke billowing
from miles away," said Milner. "I was nervous at first because it
was my first fire."
Milner worked with seven other experience firefighters to combat
the blaze on about 4 acres.
"We used hand tools and dug a line around the fire to contain
it," said Milner. "We worked pretty close to the fire - 5 to 10
feet at times. It was really hot, hard work."
As fire season continues through May 15, Edwards feels there
will be ample opportunity to illustrate his classroom principles.
"East Tennessee is generally a safer climate than Southern
California, but if the conditions are right, it can cause extreme
fire behavior," he said.
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On the Net:
Hiwassee College: http://www.hiwassee.edu/

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)