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Fighting wildfires begins long before the flames first start

Published: Friday, June 22 2012 5:19 p.m. MDT

Riley Winters of Salt Lake City, left, Zack Whipple of South Jordan, and Sarah Butler of Salt Lake City take the wildland firefighter pack test in Liberty Park in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 20, 2012. The candidates carried a 45-pound pack for three miles and were required to finish in 45 minutes or less.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — It wasn't quite the perfect storm, but it came close Friday as hot temperatures, high winds and dry conditions fueled the Saratoga Springs fire, burning thousands of acres and contributing to a state wildfire total that's already made 2012 a difficult firefighting season.

About 250 firefighters were on the scene in Saratoga Springs Friday and fire officials said they hoped to double the number of firefighters battling the blaze Saturday. Four helicopters, including one heavy lift helicopter, were battling the blaze, dipping into nearby Utah Lake for water.

For firefighters and emergency crews, the battle against wildfire actually starts long before the first flames ever reach tinder. And each year, even experienced firefighters are put through their paces before donning their fire gear.

“All of our firefighters, before they go into the field, have a refresher course in the spring,” Sheldon Wimmer, state fire management officer with the Bureau of Land Management, said. He said classes are held throughout the state and at the Utah Wildfire Academy in Richfield in May.

When the fire hits, response is quick.

“We have five dispatch centers throughout the state. These are tactical dispatch centers that will run on fires as they come up,” Wimmer said. “They are interagency fire centers that will cover the park service, fish and wildlife, BLM, forest service, all of those federal agencies plus the state of Utah.”

The five dispatch centers located in Salt Lake City, Vernal, Moab, Cedar City and Richfield handle all wildfires for all agencies. With all of the agencies combined, there are about 400 firefighters strategically spread throughout the state. If more are needed, as is the case in the Saratoga Springs fire, they can be called in from neighboring states.

The work is difficult, and so is the training.

Firefighter hopefuls in Salt Lake City Wednesday were in training and were required to complete a three-mile walk with a 45-pound pack in fewer than 45 minutes. It is part of the training that also consists of a 40-hour course designed to teach them how to be safe when fighting a fire.

“They work arduous, long hours in really steep and rough terrain. It’s often hot and windy and smoky,” assistant fire management officer Gayle Sorenson said. “Being physically fit really helps their bodies to be able to acclimate to those rugged conditions.”

In Orem, firefighters previously trained in the basics of firefighting and fire suppression activity underwent a mandatory refresher course Wednesday as well, which includes practice deploying personal fire shelters.

“This is a good thing, this is good training, this will save your life,” wildland firefighter William Villarreal said. “Basically all you see is the ground and the fire shelter.”

Earlier this week Utah’s wildland fire agencies brought in a National Wildland Fire Prevention and Education Team to try and prevent as many human-caused wildfires this year as possible. The team, which consists of three to five people, will be here for two weeks spreading fire safety messages through billboards and public service announcements.

But the fires themselves are probably the best advertisement for highlighting the need for safety. The Saratoga Springs fire that continues to burn was started by people target shooting. More than 20 fires have been started in Utah because of sparks flying from those engaged in target practice around the state.

“Our theme is we’re going to be 'Doing Our Part' to help prevent wildfires,” Donna Wilson, spokeswoman for the Utah Wildland Fire Prevention and Education team, said. “We want everybody to do their part and everybody take their responsibility so we can not have any human-caused wildfires.”

Contributing: Jed Boal

Twitter: @FinleyJY

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