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Prescott wildfire academy teaches lessons from equipment to survival

Firefighters from 27 states attend weeklong program

PRESCOTT – Cut off and about to be overrun by an out-of-control wildfire, Brett Beasley has just 25 seconds to cover up with a flame-resistant fabric shelter. He fumbles a bit while yanking the bundle from a pouch and using his left foot to unfurl it, but he pulls the barrier over his head just in time.

In a real wildfire, an instructor says, that would be cutting it much too close.

Beasley joined hundreds of firefighters, many of them new on the job, at this week’s Arizona Wildfire and Incident Management Academy. Drawing attendees from 27 states to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s campus, the weeklong program gives firefighters a crash course on everything from buying the right boots to staying alive.

Beasley, a National Park Service firefighter and equipment operator, came here from Sequoia, Calif., to prepare for his first season battling wildfires. He said the classes and exercises will make him as prepared as possible.

“It’s going to be even more difficult when it’s real because then it will be extremely dangerous,” he said.

Colin Port, a Prescott-area firefighter who taught Beasley’s class on setting up the fire shelter, said safety is as big a part of the curriculum as digging fire lines or using equipment.

“They have to learn how to keep themselves safe before they can save others,” he said.

The academy started in 2003, after the Rodeo-Chediski charred hundreds of thousands of acres of eastern Arizona forest and destroyed hundreds of homes. Firefighters weren’t prepared or equipped to deal with a fire of that magnitude, said Tony Sciacca, the academy’s coordinator.

“Now our students leave prepared,” Sciacca said.

Vicki Christensen, who recently became Arizona’s state forester, said the academy is an example of how Arizona is prepared and ready to respond to wildfires.

“Across the West, we have a unique danger; wildfires are part of our natural ecosystems,” she said during a VIP tour of the academy.

The academy offers dozens of classes ranging from basic firefighting techniques to advanced incident communication courses. The most popular advanced course has participants planning and carrying out a controlled burn.

Ty Gilstrap, a Kingman-based firefighter with the Bureau of Land Management who made his third trip to the academy, said he took the controlled-burn course, called advanced ignition operations, to prepare for a test required for promotion to fire boss.

“The teachers are very knowledgeable, and the class really helps with advancement opportunities,” Gilstrap said.

Chris English took the same class to help him requalify as a Phoenix-based field observer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“This course is an important resource to help me be able to evaluate the effects of fires on wildlife and the soil,” English said.

More than 900 participants came from as far away as Alaska and New York, paying between $40 and $60 a day for instruction. To save on lodging, some stayed in tents on an athletic field at the university.


On the Web

Arizona Wildfire and Incident Management Academy:



The Arizona Wildfire and Incident Management Academy

Location: Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott.

Founded: 2003.

2009 Dates: March 14-20.

Participants: More than 900, coming from 27 states.

Courses: Range from basic safety and firefighting techniques to advanced instruction on incident communication, tactical decision-making and controlled burns.

Cost: Between $40 and $60 a day; courses offered for a week.

More information: www.azwildfireacademy.org

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