The 13th annual Central Texas Wildfire Academy, scheduled back in October, concluded Monday. The training was conducted at Camp Bowie, under the direction of the Texas A&M Forest Service. 65 students and numerous instructors gathered from around the state, as well as one form Steamboat, Colo., for five days of training.

On Monday, the students put into practice what they had learned during the previous four days of classroom instruction. Originally slated to burn a 250 acre area, the team reduced the area to 100 acres, over the weekend.

The goal of the training is to enhance the skills of firefighters and to expose them to new firefighting techniques. The courses utilize standards developed by the National Wildfire Coordination Group, with the purpose of "coordinating programs of the participating wildfire management agencies so as to avoid wasteful duplication and to provide a means of constructively working together" and to "to provide more effective execution of each agency’s fire management program."

Students and instructors had a vast range of experience and education, some being exposed to the program for the first time. What they learn at these academies enables them to respond to assist other agencies, in cases of emergency, with everyone being on the same page.

Courses offered to the students included introductory, intermediate, and advanced, as well as squad boss, ignition operators, and tanker shuttle operations.

Matt Lanier, in his first year with the Texas A&M Forest Service and stationed in Merkel, attended the training, as a student.

"Our division will walk the perimeter, watching for spot fires," Lanier said, "The school is a good introduction to wildland firefighting, giving us the opportunity to learn from those who have been there."

The academy was hosted by the Lake Brownwood Dam VFD, the National Guard, and the Texas Forest Service. Students included firefighters from around the state, including Desdemona FD, Austin FD, Valley Mills FD, Texas Parks and Wildlife, and U.S. Forest Service.

Lt. Andre De La Reza, a twelve year veteran of the Austin FD, is a member of their Wildfire Mitigation Division said the AFD sent three students and three instructors.

"This is a good training opportunity," De La Reza added, "The TFS is a really good resource, going all over the state with training for firefighters."

For Monday's training, De La Reza was assigned to "Ignition Operations," lighting fires on the perimeter of the prescribed burn.

The firefighters were adamant about referring to the burns as "prescribed," as opposed to the commonly hear term, "controlled burn." Nick Harrison, a Wildland Urban Interface Specialist III with the Texas A&M Forest Service and Brownwood native, explained wildland fires are not controlled, rather through specific efforts and techniques, the firefighters prescribe or dictate what areas will burn. The TFS defines prescribed burning as "the planned and deliberate application of fire as a land management tool." 

Phillip Truitt, TFS Wildland Urban Interface Specialist I and Public Information Officer, explained it as habitat restoration and fuels reduction. While the primary intent of the burns is to clear dead grasses, enabling new green growth and reducing fuel for accidental wildfires to spread, they also provide firefighters the training opportunity.

Prior to conducting any of the three prescribed burns, the TFS deployed bulldozers around the perimeter, to contain the fire within the designated areas. The dozers remained in the field, quickly accessible if needed to create emergency firebreaks. Additionally, several of the agencies involved brought water pumping trucks and the National Guard provided a "tender" or large tanker of water. Natural firebreaks, such as the wide caliche tank trails and roads, were also utilized.

Harrison, however, said the water would be used as a last resort, because the purpose of the school was to teach how fire is used to fight fires. The techniques are essential to fighting wildland fires, because of the inability to transport water into some terrain and/or water is scarce. Students practiced back burning, a techniques designed eliminate a source of fuel in front of a fire, and "digging hand lines," using specialized hoes, shovels, and rakes, which removes fuel from around previously burned areas and prevents re-ignition.

Prior to the prescribed burns, the firefighters conducted wind and humidity tests, and a small area "test burn." If conditions are outside certain parameters, the burns are not conducted. Those involved in the prescribed burns and training were professionals, following protocol to ensure their own safety, as well as the safety of area residents and the protection of their property.