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Sonoma County firefighters train on how to control flames as wildfire season arrives

With wildfire season here, firefighters from across the county learn the skill of controlling prescribed burns through the SRJC Fire Technology Program.|

Leaning on tools to create fire lines Thursday morning, firefighters from all over Sonoma County observed the behavior of flames and smoke as they twisted into the air and grass disintegrated into ash.

They were at the Warm Springs Dam at Lake Sonoma for the second day of a three-day prescribed burn training taught by the Santa Rosa Junior College’s Fire Technology Program.

As drought grips California and increased fire weather is on the horizon, fire departments across the North Bay are stepping up preparations in case of another catastrophic fire season such as when the Tubbs, Nuns and Glass fires rocked Sonoma County’s communities. The junior college’s training provides needed hands-on experience for firefighters in case of fires both small and large.

The course is optional, often paid for by departments across the North Bay, so many firefighters take advantage of the opportunity as it happens only once a year when conditions are safe enough and before fire season is expected to begin.

“The purpose is burning it on our terms, in alignment and in our control,” Marshall Turbeville said to a crowd of about 30 firefighters from departments across the North Bay, including Rancho Adobe Fire District, Santa Rosa and Graton fire departments. They circled around him attentively after their first pass at burning.

Turbeville, a Northern Sonoma County Fire District chief, a Cal Fire battalion chief and a junior college instructor, created a map of the 80-acre burn section on a whiteboard to allow the students to come up with their own burn strategy, resembling something of a football game plan.

“So what could go wrong?” Turbeville asked them.

There were lots of answers. A major wind shift, a medical emergency, an unforeseen event such as a wild animal on fire, a rolling fiery pine cone or an escaped ember.

For all these reasons, it’s always best to have a plan just in case something goes wrong, Turbeville said. And that’s why they were there: to learn how fire behaves in a low-risk, low-stress environment surrounded by support.

“Fire doesn’t have to be scary in a controlled situation,” said Shane Spelman, 22, a Graton Fire Department engineer who participated in the program to gain experience. “We use it as a tool.”

Prescribed burns can be used to remove excessive dry fuels such as brush, shrubs and trees and make room for new growth. Controlled burns can also be used to create barriers to prevent a house from catching fire or to stop a small blaze from becoming a catastrophic one.

There will always be risks, but the benefits of knowing how to hold a prescribed burn far outweigh them, said Kim Thompson, the Fire Tech program coordinator.

The participants also become familiar with certain firefighting tools such as McLeods (a tool that scrapes and rakes vegetation), Pulaskis (an ax that can chop brush with an opposite end that can dig soil), weather readers, drip torches and flares, Thompson said. They learn about vegetation, weather, fire behavior and topography, all while getting to know each other’s departments as they work together.

It was a sunny day, but wind was low and relative humidity was high. Firefighters noted that the grasses were burning much more slowly compared to Wednesday, which saw temperatures in the mid-90s.

Much of the day is spent waiting, with heavy packs on their backs, monitoring the burn and checking to make sure weather conditions are within their safety requirements.

At one point, firefighters lit a top and bottom section of a field and then watched as the two fires met in the middle, swirling into each other and gaining height as they merged, creating a thick plume of smoke tens of feet high.

Within a couple hours they’d finished about 5 acres out of the 80 acres they would burn overall for the training, a burn which also serves to clear the area for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers personnel to inspect the dam for gopher holes and leakage.

“I like to think we have have a mental Rolodex where you have a roll of these files in your head,” said Scott Bristow, 50, a Santa Rosa Fire captain. “The more of the files you have, the quicker you can come up with a plan of action.”

You can reach Staff Writer Alana Minkler at 707-526-8511 or alana.minkler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @alana_minkler.

Alana Minkler

Breaking news & general assignment reporter, The Press Democrat

The world is filled with stories that inspire compassion, wonder, laughs and even tears. As a Press Democrat reporter covering breaking news, tribes and youth, it’s my goal to give others a voice to share these stories.

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