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K-State Today

April 19, 2012

Kansas Forest Service fire staff spends spring break working and teaching

Submitted by Eric Ward

Kansas Forest Service

For several years, the Kansas Forest Service fire management staff has partnered with Hutchinson Community College’s fire science program to provide a special learning experience for fire students at the community college.

Starting several years ago, an annual spring fire mitigation project was developed to provide Hutchinson students with some hands-on experience conducting hazardous fuels reduction to reduce wildfire risk to homes in the Wildland Urban Interface. After several years of working with the Corps of Engineers at Tuttle Creek and Milford, the project moved to Butler County, and for the last three years students have worked each spring break at the Jackman Demonstration Forest, a 900-acre research and educational facility owned by the Kansas State University Foundation and managed by the Kansas Forest Service.

As the project has grown in size and complexity, the quality of learning experience for the students has expanded. The event is scheduled during the community college's spring break, and is a five-day internship that earns credit for the students, while providing valuable work for the Kansas Forest Service. To provide the best possible experience, the event is run like a wildfire incident, with an Incident Management Team in place to oversee operations, and the facility run like a fire camp on a major wildfire. Each morning starts with a morning briefing by the Incident Management Team, followed by a full day’s work. Students are assigned either to a wildland fire engine with two or three firefighters working under an experienced engine captain, or as part of a 20-person hand crew that has an experienced crew boss overseeing three experienced squad bosses who guide the students in their work.

Daily work assignments typically involve thinning or removing hazardous trees, creating firebreaks and similar projects, and increasingly have incorporated prescribed fire. This year’s project had the perfect mix of weather and staffing to be able to conduct prescribed burning every day of the week during the project. In addition, students got to dig a fire line by hand, set up long hose lays for fire control, and assisted in attacking a wildfire in the area -- all making for the best mix of experience ever provided in this project.

In addition to the Hutchinson Community College students, firefighters from the Kansas Forest Service staff were joined by those from federal agencies and local fire departments in several states working in overhead positions. In these positions they lend their expertise in training the students, but also work on developing their own fire qualifications and management experience. Several overhead personnel each year complete new levels of national certifications for firefighters and overhead positions because of the experience they gain during this project.

Response from students and overhead personnel has been overwhelmingly positive. A number of alumni from this program have earned seasonal or permanent fire jobs with various federal agencies, and have reported that having had this experience made them much better prepared for their new jobs than simply earning certifications in a classroom setting.

Kansas Forest Service is part of the College of Agriculture and the department of horticulture, forestry and recreation resources. It is the fifth oldest state forestry agency in the U.S. The service is celebrating 125 years of care of natural resources and service to people and through forestry.