As several hundred yellow-shirted men and women gather around an instructor at the edge of a woodline near Grand Rapids, there's two-way radio chatter in the background. The firefighters have shovels in hand and water hoses at the ready as they prepare to enter the woods.
Most of these firefighting students have never battled a forest fire. They're getting ready to respond to one now in a simulated training exercise.
Trainer Daria Day, who works for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, tells her students what they should beware of.
"It's pretty thick back there guys," she says, "so watch your spacing, watch your tool usage out there. We want to make sure everyone is safe out there."
Day is an experienced wildland firefighter fresh off of this spring's huge Ham Lake fire along the Gunflint Trail. Now, she's a facilitator and instructor at this basic firefighting course. Day says many of the participants have been interested for a long time in fighting forest fires.
"When you talk with folks, they'll have a personal experience in their life that does turn them towards fire," Day says. "This is the class that folks take when they have a true interest in wildland firefighting. They want to take it beyond the idea of protecting natural resources and going out there and working on the line, to reality. This is the class that sets the foundations for them."
All this week the mostly college-aged students have been learning about fire behavior, safety and suppression tactics. At the same time, more experienced firefighters are learning advanced techniques ranging from downing trees with chainsaws, to medical unit leadership and logistical operations.
The Minnesota Wildfire Academy is the only one in the state and one of only a few of its kind in the country. It's attracted students from 16 states, but most are DNR or federal wildlife employees from Minnesota.
The weeklong training program was created by the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center, which includes the state DNR, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The academy is coordinated through Mesabi Range Community and Technical College in Virginia and Itasca Community College in Grand Rapids.
Enrollment at the academy is at an all-time high, according to Barb Meyer, wildfire training coordinator for the DNR. She says part of the reason is that the massive Ham Lake fire and other wildfires in the country got people's attention.
"We get a lot more interest in the basic entry level firefighter after such a large fire. And any time we hear, there's a lot going on out west or down south, people hear it and they call and they want to be trained in being a wildland firefighter," Meyer says.
Many of the students in the basic wildfire fighting course are people looking for seasonal work. But Michael Loosen, an emergency medical technician and a volunteer fireman for the city of Oakdale, is interested in making firefighting a career. Loosen says many of his classmates got interested after seeing Minnesota's active fire season this year.
"A lot of people here actually told me they've seen the Ham Lake fire and that's kind of what they came out here for," Loosen says. "They were last minute students, so they were very happy to be here. They enjoy it. We all do."
Fire training officials hope to see even more interest in wildland firefighting in the future. About 30 percent of Minnesota's DNR employees and close to half of U.S. Forest Service workers will be eligible for retirement by 2012. Trainer Daria Day says that has a lot of people concerned.
"We have a huge number of very experienced firefighters out there who are our fire management officers now, our division supervisors, our incident commanders. They're filling those leadership roles and yes, indeed, many of them are five to 10 years from retirement," Day says. "There's certainly the need for those interested in this line of work to be moving in that direction so we can fill in those gaps as folks are retiring."
People who want to get into the profession have another option besides the academy. Itasca Community College has the only program in the state that offers one and two-year college diplomas for fighting forest fires.