Wildfire Academies Across the U.S.A.

Dec. 1, 2003
Structural and Wildland Firefighters Training Together – Part 2 Robert M. Winston concludes this series with a look at major wildfire
As we have seen recently in California, the need for cross training to enable all firefighters to operate safely and effectively at wildland and wildland/urban interface (W/UI) fire incidents is an essential component of modern firefighting operations.
Photo by Robert M. Winston Students are taught about helicopter operations by the Salt Lake City Bureau of Land Management Helitack Crew during the Utah Wildfire Academy.

Part one of this article in the November issue stated that without proper approved training, the firefighter and firefighting teams can be at great risk during the simplest wildland or W/UI fire. It also was noted that those risks increase exponentially at the larger more complex wildland and W/UI fires that have become more common across the country.

Wildfire academies are ideal settings where structural and wildland firefighters can join together to gain the required training to meet those demands. Last month's installment featured wildfire academies in Arizona and Colorado. This installment will focus on the other major wildfire academies that are held annually across the country.

Once again, it must be stressed that these academies are not only for wildland firefighters. Structural firefighters, whether they are career, volunteer, call, city, suburban or rural, municipal or private contract, are welcome and encouraged to attend.

Utah Wildfire Academy

The third annual Utah Wildfire Academy (UWA) brought hundreds of firefighters together to train and network from May 11-17, 2003, at the Deseret Peak Complex in Tooele. Twenty-seven courses were offered.

Photo by Robert M. Winston Mop-up is an important part of any fire. Here students learn the basics at the Utah Wildfire Academy.

As a direct result of National Fire Plan (NFP) funding, more volunteer firefighters than ever attended the UWA. The volunteer firefighters are invaluable because they are often the first on scene at wildland fires. Over 95% of wildland fires are extinguished in the "initial attack" phases. By training with firefighters from other agencies, volunteers increase their ability to fight fires as part of cooperative teams. At the 2003 UWA at least 112 volunteers from Utah received training, personal protective clothing and equipment as a direct result of funds from the NFP. Many firefighters from state, federal and private contractors also attended the UWA.

"This academy gives something to the Utah firefighting efforts that nothing else could," said Vi Hillman, UWA administrator and founder and Interagency Training Specialist. "People are coming from throughout Utah and the western United States. When so many firefighters are gathered together for training, it creates an incredible synergy between participants. This training is crucial to volunteer firefighters (and other firefighters). For each volunteer, the cost for UWA tuition and the protective clothing costs up to $400 per firefighter. They receive the training and clothing at no cost to them or their fire departments due to NFP funding."

To foster community relations and fire safety, a "Fire Awareness Day" was held on May 17 at the Utah State Fire Museum at the Deseret Peaks Complex. This year's UWA was a tremendous success. The next UWA will be held in Richfield in May 2004. For complete details go to the UWA's website at www.ut.blm.gov/fire/FireAcademy/intro.html or call Hillman at 801-539-4092 or Jaki Nordrum at 801-539 4127.

Alabama Wildfire Academy

Several years ago, while I was teaching the course "S 205 - Fire Operations in the Wildland/Urban Interface" at the Capital Area Wildfire Academy in Bastrop, TX, I met Pelham, AL, Fire Chief Gary Waters. He was in Texas because he had read an article in Firehouse® describing the Texas Wildfire Academy and he wanted to establish a similar academy in Alabama.

Photo by Robert M. Winston Live-fire training is safely used whenever possible to train students at the Utah Wildfire Academy. A Type 6 brush engine from the Tooele Fire Department stands by.

"The idea for an Alabama Wildfire Academy (AWA) took root at this academy in Bastrop," Waters said. "Quite by coincidence, I met up with half a dozen Alabama firefighters while at the academy in Texas. The question was asked, why do we have to come to Texas for training when we should have this training in Alabama? It was a real good question. I took it from that point and when I returned home a meeting was held and we petitioned the U.S. Forest Service for seed money to start an AWA."

Waters continued, "What about the involvement of structural firefighters in wildland fire? The way I see this is that it gives structural firefighters in Alabama (and elsewhere) a look into yet another facet of the fire services and access to it if they want to be involved. I feel that the AWA has helped to bring the structural and the wildfire services closer together. This also gives the U.S. Forest Service more resources to draw from when needed. We had firefighters from Alabama in Idaho this fire season. The training that firefighters receive at the AWA has had a positive impact on our wildland/urban interface fire preparedness in parts of Alabama. We no longer put firefighters into the woods wearing heavy structural PPE (personal protective equipment)."

Cathy Cline, an official of the U.S. Forest Service and the AWA coordinator said, "According to the AWA's incident commander, Pelham Fire Department Captain David McCurry, the academy registered 344 attendees at the 2003 AWA. I feel that this academy was successful in providing a high quality of training to a large number of personnel at a reasonable cost. We are looking at a way to enable more firefighters to attend next year's AWA from grant monies. This year students experienced what a real fire camp could be like. There were temperatures that were both hot and cold; rain; tornado warnings; insects and snakes; noise and catered food. These are some of the things to expect in fire camps."

The next AWA will be held at the Oak Mountain State Park outside Birmingham in the early spring of 2004. Contact Cline at 2946 Chestnut St., Montgomery, AL 36106-3010; telephone 334-241-8107 or 334-324-9254; or e-mail [email protected].

Texas Wildfire Academies

Two major wildfire academies are held each year in Texas. Because of the size of Texas and the need to train firefighters, more academies are being considered, similar to the smaller academy in Brownwood.

Photo by Robert M. Winston Structure firefighters cutting line to make a fire break during the basic wildfire class at the Alabama Wildfire Academy.

The Texas Interagency Wildfire Academy is held at the Angelina Junior College in Lufkin annually in mid-May. Nearly 525 firefighter students attended 25 classes in 2003, representing federal, state, city, county, and contractor wildland and structural firefighters of all ranks from 19 states.

The Capital Area Interagency Wildfire Academy is held at the Texas Army National Guard training facility in Bastrop in October. Last year, the academy hosted over 700 firefighter students from 33 states and held 30 classes. Structural firefighters and contractors represented 39% of the students. The economic impact to the Bastrop area was an estimated $500,000.

Both Texas academies offer basic wildland fire suppression courses up to Fire Supervisor and administrative classes as well as a five-day basic and advanced Engine Academy. For additional information contact Kelly Benton, Texas Forest Service Academy coordinator by e-mail at [email protected], via the website at www.tamu.edu/ticc or call 936-875-4960.

New York Wildfire & Incident Management Academy (NYWIMA)

The need for wildland fire and emergency management and incident training in the Northeast was brought to the forefront when a large wildland/urban interface fire burned nearly 5,000 acres on Long Island, NY, in 1995 (See "Long Island Wildfires: One of the Largest Mutual Aid Calls in New York State's History," July 1996). Several years ago, the first wildfire and incident management academy for the northeast was held at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, NY. The academy is now held annually during the last week of October into the first week of November. It is sponsored by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Central Pine Barrens Commission, U.S. Forest Service, Suffolk County Fire Rescue Emergency Services, Brookhaven Labs, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and SEMO.

The academy is committed to providing the highest level of preparedness within New York State and for the Northeast in order to mitigate the effects of wildfires and other disasters on life, property and the environment. The staff consists of 60 instructors and overhead from 28 agencies teaching nearly 25 courses. At the 2002 academy 544 firefighter students attended. The academy is dedicated to promoting firefighter safety; teaching fire management and tactics; and encouraging interagency cooperation, coordination and exchanging experiences from and for all levels of government.

The contact person for the NYWIMA is Charles Hamilton, academy coordinator, at 631-444-0270, e-mail [email protected] or via the website www.decstateny.us/website/reg1/acad.html

Other Training Venues

The Sierra Blanca Wildfire Academy is held in New Mexico during the last week of February. Contact Jerry Bullock, academy coordinator, by e-mail at [email protected].

The National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, MD, offers a three-part course dedicated to wildland/urban interface fire protection for structural firefighters. Visit the website at www.usfa.fema.gov/fire service/nfa/nfa.shtm for further information.

Here are some additional websites to visit for other wildland fire training opportunities:




As the wildland/urban interface fire threat increases, the need for structure firefighters of all ranks to become involved will increase dramatically. The necessity to properly cross-train and cross-equip firefighters will require quality training and these wildfire academies are among the best places to obtain that training. The smartest and the safest firefighters are those that are properly trained. Good luck and be safe out there!

My thanks and appreciation to all of the wildfire academy coordinators and incident commanders for their hospitality and support and for providing the information without which the preparation of this article would not have been possible.

Robert M. Winston, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 33-year veteran of the fire service and a retired Boston Fire Department district fire chief. He is a wildland/urban interface and structural fire service presenter and adjunct college instructor. Winston can be contacted at 928-541-9215 or e-mail [email protected].

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