A representative of the Maine Forest Service teaches firefighters about safety around helicopters during a training on wildfires in Cape Elizabeth on April 15.

Seven members of Harpswell’s three independent fire departments, along with 43 other firefighters, recently participated in wild lands fire training with the Maine Forest Service.

Harpswell had several woods fires last summer, including a three-day burn on Great Island. Woods fires require different skills and different gear than house fires. 

The training started with a series of online classes and exams and culminated in a field exercise on April 15 in Cape Elizabeth.

The online classes cover a wealth of information. Students learn about equipment and terminology, such as “island,” an area that is not burning; and “fingers,” offshoots of fire heading in different directions.

Clothing consists of shirts and pants, preferably made of the nonflammable material Nomex, together with helmets and leather boots. The typical turnout gear for house fires is heavy and hot. The lighter clothing worn by wild lands firefighters allows for ease of movement while they hike long distances with heavy equipment.

The online classes also cover the effects of weather, including wind and humidity, on fire and smoke. Participants learn never to go uphill from a fire, so as not to become trapped in flames that travel upward. They learn about controlled burns of areas where a fire is heading, which starve the fire of fuel, like grass or foliage.

Since helicopters are often used in woods fires, participants learn safety protocols, such as avoiding the tail and avoiding any part of a helicopter on a downhill slope, since the blades can be too low there.

At the in-person exercise, the Forest Service did not set a fire, as weather conditions made it too dangerous. The Forest Service did bring in a Vietnam-era UH-1 helicopter, known as a Huey, for practice.

A Huey is designed to carry a lot of weight, including water and rescued people. The helicopter can lower a collapsible bucket into a pond, fill it with 240 gallons of water, then carry it over the fire and release it. It can also release water into portable tanks, which are brought to a fire by truck.

Members of Harpswell’s three independent fire departments attend a training on wildfires. From left: Jack Stokinger, Mason Smith, Meriel Longley, Mike Hartman, Rosie Buonaiuto.

Course participants had the opportunity to witness and participate in helicopter operations. They also practiced hiking to a site with packs carrying portable pumps, hoses, shovels, axes, spades and other equipment, and they practiced the use of portable pumps.

Participants learned to work in teams, splitting up into groups to dig a fire line, used to contain a fire. The first group used axes and picks to break through sod and roots. Others cleared the area with rakes and hoes, while still others moved in with shovels to dig a trench.

Another topic was fire observation and communication. Fire observers, sometimes including crews of helicopters and planes, monitor the movement of a fire while firefighters are immersed in their work.

The location and movement of a fire, as well as changes in the weather, are constantly communicated to prevent firefighters from becoming trapped.

Participants learned to identify escape routes and safe areas, such as rocky ground. Using an escape route to shelter in a safe area is a last-ditch effort to save one’s own life. It usually only happens when a fire changes or grows abruptly and tremendously.

A safe area is typically devoid of plant life, but it could be surrounded by fire. In that case, participants are trained to get into a portable shelter that they carry with them. The portable shelter consists of a foil blanket that forms a three-sided cocoon. The responder crawls into it and lays on the ground close to others, so they can communicate with each other. Such events trigger a state investigation to find out why they happened and how to prevent them in the future.

Local firefighters reported that the field experience was challenging and exhilarating. Hats off to the participants, some of whom also participated in ice rescue training in February. Harpswell can feel safe in the hands of competent firefighters who are constantly pursuing up-to-the-minute knowledge and skills.

The Harpswell trainees were Mario Baldi, Meriel Longley and Steve Rowe, of the Cundy’s Harbor Volunteer Fire Department; Jack Stokinger, of Harpswell Neck Fire and Rescue; and Rosie Buonaiuto, Mike Hartman and Mason Smith, of the Orr’s and Bailey Islands Fire Department.