Alva Review-Courier -

Six counties represented at wildland fire training course in Alva


Stacy Sanborn

Alfalfa County District 3 Commissioner Ray "Toby" Walker, and Alfalfa County Emergency Management Director Shana Smallwood-Buchanan attend the wildland fire training course at the Woods County Fairgrounds Thursday.

Recent rains provided much-needed moisture to Oklahoma and gave the southeastern section relief from the state's ongoing dry spell, but did little to put a dent into northwest Oklahoma's precipitation deficit. Per the U.S. Drought Monitor, southeastern sections of the state were categorized as a moderate to severe drought while the northwest region's drought held the title of being extreme. Deteriorating conditions in this part of the state have contributed to dry vegetation, poor crop production, and have had devastating effects on livestock. Factor in erratic winds, hot temperatures and low moisture levels, and the perfect conditions for fire development are born. These components allow fire to burn at a rapid speed, making them harder to contain. With fire prevention being almost impossible during such conditions, fire preparedness is priority.

Being ready to fight fires is a huge feat that requires specialized training. Last Thursday, such training was made available in Alva. The one-day workshop specifically zeroed in on heavy equipment operators to teach them the fundamentals of using their equipment while also learning the anatomy of a fire. Though originally scheduled to be held at Alva's Northwest Technology Center campus, the training course was moved to the Woods County Fairgrounds due to large enrollment numbers. The location modification proved to be ideal, as the fairgrounds provided the means for employing techniques learned during the class's morning half. One technique was a field exercise illustrating how a bulldozer works quickly and efficiently to clear a tract of land to create a firebreak. (This clearing's purpose is to eliminate or minimize anything that could further fuel the fire.) Unbeknown to many, those who operate heavy equipment are first responders of sorts, as they are often some of the first to arrive at the wildland fire site, bulldozers in tow.

Operators got to stray away from talking about the 100-ton machines they usually man and learn about a much smaller contraption that is now being used to assist in the firefighting process. Two students, Victoria Natalie and Seabrook Whyte from the Unmanned Systems Research Institute, or OSRI, gave a presentation on what most people refer to as "drones." Technically named unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), these machines get built at The Oklahoma State University College of Engineering, Architecture and Technology.

The OSRI program is an extension of the Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) specialty – a multi-disciplinary program that emphasizes instruction and research of unmanned aerial vehicles, giving students the opportunity for hands-on analysis while teaching design, construction and execution of flight testing. With the rapid advancement of technology, uses for the UAV continues to grow. Besides being extremely useful in weather technology and forecasting, they're now being used to perform damage assessment in ice storms, tornadoes and fires. For the latter, they work to identify hot spots using a thermal infrared camera, looking for zones primed for ignition or areas that may have escaped containment. Known to excel in mapping and data collection, these aerial vehicles are giving way to the ease of situational assessment in lieu of human pilots. This ultimately frees up larger wildfire aviation crews, allowing them to deploy their teams, move equipment, or drop flame retardant and water.

UAVs have the capacity to remove humans from dangerous and harmful situations, therefore preserving human life. Safety and the preservation of life is always at the forefront of those on the front lines, but the concept doesn't stop there. Multiple agencies across the state are dedicated to the safety of all citizens. The Association of County Commissioners of Oklahoma (ACCO) works with all 77 counties for the health, safety and welfare needs of all county inhabitants. The association is a clearinghouse for leadership training and educational programming. Dale Frech, ACCO's safety director, was present at the training event to offer his support and promote the message of his mission – to provide the tools, training and guidance for local entities to adopt and implement safety and loss control programs.

Also displaying a passion in training and preserving the safety of others was Training Major Brian Arnold. He spoke to the crowd and showed his passion for training those involved in the firefighting process. Arnold currently serves as a major with the Oklahoma City Fire Department where he has been since 1991. His experience and skill set were not lost on the crowd. Having responded to the Alfred P. Murrah bombing in 1995 and two of the largest tornadoes (F5) in U.S. history, his expertise didn't stop there. He founded a 19-week fire academy that trains both civilian and incumbent firefighters and co-owns 1st Due Fire Training, a program that teaches across the U.S. and throughout the world to countries such as Portugal, Bahrain, Italy Guam, Romania, and Puerto Rico.

The Wildland Fire Training for Heavy Equipment Operators was made possible by LTAP – Oklahoma's Local Technical Assistance Program. It operates as an extension of Oklahoma State University, providing training and technical assistance to government entities that plan, maintain and construct transportation systems at the local level. Offering over 50 different courses, LTAP's training is free for local governments. Michael Hinkston, LTAP's program manager, did most of the coordinating of the event.

Photo provided

Representing Oklahoma State University's Unmanned Systems Research Institute, Victoria Natalie and Seabrook Whyte speak about their work on unmanned aircraft systems.

Students of the course came from the counties of Alfalfa, Ellis, Grant, Major, Roger Mills and Woods. One person each from the Nescatunga Fire Department and the Cheyenne-Arapaho Tribe attended as well. Students were made up of heavy equipment operators, laborers, road hands and even 911 coordinators. All three of Woods County's commissioners (David Hamil, Randy McMurphy and John Smiley) were present, as well as Alfalfa County's Emergency Management Director Shana Smallwood-Buchanan and their District 3 Commissioner Ray "Toby" Walker.

Time was taken to honor Jack Osben, the man from Roger Mills County that sadly passed away last month. His death was a result of smoke inhalation incurred while working a wildland fire. Osben was trying to build a barrier against the flames, but the smoke proved to be too much. Just over an hour away, the Butler Volunteer Fire Department suffered a smaller caliber loss of their own. The fire department, located in Dewey County, lost a brush truck in a blaze this season and though considered a loss for the county, the gain was the walking away of the


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