‘Dangerous scenario’: Cal Fire conducts annual training exercise as fire season approaches Leave a comment

Members of Washington Ridge Crew 3 begin a hike on the San Juan Ridge last week in preparation of their yearly hand crew certification. The state’s inmate firefighters are a valuable asset in helping to control the state’s wildland fires.
Photo: Elias Funez

Cal Fire’s Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit is conducting hands-on certification training in collaboration with other agencies, helping prepare the unit for possibly one of the worst fire seasons in state history.

The Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit conducts a certification training for firefighting hand crews annually, in collaboration with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the California Conservation Corps, and the California National Guard. This year’s training occurred this week, and saw around 150 firefighters receive their certifications.

The program is of particular significance to Cal Fire due to the collaboration with other state departments and also due to the challenging hands-on nature of the training, which simulates the conditions personnel face when fighting a major wildfire, according to the unit’s Assistant Chief Jim Mathias.

Washington Ridge Fire Capt. Eric Ayers readies to lead Crew 3 through a series of training exercises in preparation of their yearly certification. Fire crews are subject to the conditions of fire-prone regions and are tested on a multitude of skills.
Photo: Elias Funez

“We certify that our fire crews are able to perform at a type one level. Our personnel are asked to perform the most complex, difficult, dangerous fire line constructions basically ever to be associated with,” Mathias said.

While the unit’s personnel train all year, the hand crew certification training engages firefighters with unique physical fitness tests, as well as exercises that test problem solving skills, said Mary Eldridge, the unit’s public information officer. The crews are instructed to create strategic fuel breaks, have to use tools to overcome terrain obstacles, and are physically pushed to their limits through running and hiking exercises that go through different stations, Eldridge said.

“Within the Nevada-Yuba-Placer area you have a lot of different terrain, different land,” she said. “Having these crews there tells them about the vegetation, what they would be facing. They’re taught what conditions on the ground will be like. They can really get a sense of the threat.”

Washington Ridge Fire Crew 3 exits the back of its vehicle as if it were responding to a fire last week on the San Juan Ridge. Fire Capt. Eric Ayers makes sure that his hand crew is well versed in firefighting knowledge and technique prior to the annual certification training.
Photo: Elias Funez

This week’s certification featured firefighting units from several state first responder agencies, including the National Guard. Two inmate crews from the Washington Ridge Camp prison also trained with Cal Fire, through a California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation program. The opportunity to work with these partner agencies is beneficial to the Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit, as their support allows the department to have more resources on call when combating fires, Mathias said.

“I think anytime you have diversity, it gives you strength. With the depth of resources to reach from with the (California Conservation Corps), the inmate crews, and the National Guard, we have more employees and more hand crews,” he said.


Mathias spoke highly of the inclusion of the prison crews in the certification training, calling their presence a considerable asset to the unit.

Washington Ridge Fire Capt. Eric Ayers leads Fire Crew 3 last week on the San Juan Ridge.
Photo: Elias Funez

“The inmate crews are a good pool of workers. This opportunity provides structure in their lives, gives them self worth, and it’s helping people on a daily basis,” Mathias said.

“I think it gives them structure and direction and allows them to see a different side of the world that a lot of folks have been exposed to.”

Mathias also emphasized that training such as the certification program is essential to readying his unit, as Cal Fire is preparing for what climate experts are saying could be one of the worst fire seasons in state history.

“One of the things we historically say in Cal Fire is that this year could be the worst fire season ever, but we used to say it as a joke. Now, for the last three or four years, it has actually been that way and it’s not a joke,” he said.

California’s inmate fire crews are an asset to the protection of fire-prone areas of the state every year and must go through an annual hand crew certification.
Photo: Elias Funez

“People have lost lives and homes. It’s a very dangerous scenario that we’re facing and that’s what we’re trying to provide for.”

These drills are important not only because they help the unit better protect their communities, but also because they help keep unit personnel safe in the field, Mathias said. The certification program teaches firefighters safety techniques through a variety of different field exercises and maneuvers, as well as general safety education.

“Our crews are working hard for us to protect people’s homes, and in return it is our responsibility to make sure that they’re as safe as possible,” he said.

Stephen Wyer is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at swyer@theunion.com

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