The Delaware Forest Service has free wildfire training classes in February.
As fires ravage Australia, volunteer firefighters have received international attention. Firefighters from California have already flown in to help for the next month.
The agency that called on California’s firefighters, the National Interagency Fire Center, calls on the Delaware Forest Service at least twice a year to help with fires in the United States.
Each fire season, typically July and August, the Delaware Forest Service sends a 20-person crew to an out-of-state wildfire for two weeks. It’s part of their Wildland Fire Program.
Anyone who wants to join this volunteer team can take the free training classes. Before enrolling, students must pass two prerequisite online courses, Introduction to the Incident Command System and Intro to National Incident Management System. The courses are at training.fema.gov, and students are expected to bring course completion certificates on the first day.
Kyle Hoyd, assistant state forester and fire program director, said they get volunteers from college students to older military veterans.
“Our typical volunteer is folks who like to hunt, fish, hike. We have a lot of folks who are dynamic in their communities,” Hoyd said.
About the classes
The wildfire trainees go to the Delaware Department of Agriculture in Camden two weekends in February for Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior and Firefighter Training.
If they pass, they will be invited to Fire Camp, a hands-on exercise at a state forest one day in March. After that, they will be eligible to go on an assignment.
All volunteers must be at least 18 years old and physically fit. They must pass a fitness test: carry 45 pounds three miles in 45 minutes.
Beyond being athletic and open to adventure, the volunteers are expected to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice, said John Petersen, community relations officer for the Delaware Forest Service.
“We’re definitely looking for a special kind of person,” Petersen said. “It’s like a volunteer firefighter in your community. When that alarm goes off, they jump in their truck.”
On one assignment, they had 8 hours’ notice before getting on a plane, Hoyd said.
Still, there is no commitment once someone is eligible, and the forest service understands that personal lives and health emergencies come up. That’s why they need as many volunteers as possible.
“We need to keep that readiness capability up at all times,” Petersen said.
Why do it?
The U.S. Forest Service pays those who go on out-of-state assignments. A typical 16-day tour of duty will average between 220 and 250 working hours or about $4,500 for an entry-level firefighter position.
Many people return to the team and work toward leadership positions because of the experience rather than the money, Hoyd said.
“The number one thing that I hear our firefighters say when they come back is how they feel like they’ve never felt before. They feel whole because they are giving back in a way not many people have done or can do,” he said.
Still hesitant? “If somebody’s on the fence about possibly wanting to come and do this type of work, give it a try,” Hoyd said. “We welcome you with open arms.”