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SHERIDAN — His voice boomed over the chairs: “Get your gear on. Get your boots on. Get your packs fitted to you. Get your Nomex on.”
Outside, wind whipped down the face of the Bighorn Mountains, over the foothills, through the tall grasses that would be ripe fuel for fire.
Again: “Gear up. The clock’s running. We still have to walk up there.”
“Where are we walking?”
At this point, Steve Hanson shook his head in mock disbelief. “To the fire zone, man! The fire doesn’t come to you; you’ve got to go to the fire. We’ve discussed this.”
Hanson, fire science instructor for Sheridan County School District 1, urged his four students out the front door of Big Horn High School, up the hill, to a scruffy area behind the football field.
Polaskis, McLeods and shovels in hand, these students were ready to learn how to dig a fire line. They would be digging for less than an hour, but Hanson had taught them well that when they were on a line with the U.S. Forest Service, they’d be scraping and digging for 10 hours in the summer sun with 45-pound packs on their back. And they’d be facing real, unpredictable fire with the mission of stopping its rampage — smartly and safely.
“It’s hard to think of all the stuff you’ve learned in the class and apply it in the field, but it all comes together,” Kevin Coffman, junior at BHHS, said about the mock fire line drill.
“It’s a different kind of learning,” said classmate Weston Mann, a senior. “It’s a different environment. It’s just way better.”
The fire science class is new for SCSD 1. This semester was the first time it was offered at Tongue River and Big Horn High Schools.
Every student who completes the course will earn a National Wildfire Coordinating Group Firefighter II for Wildland Fire certificate, known as a red card, which will allow them to join the USFS or a volunteer fire department for summer work — or a lifetime, as some have expressed.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I always thought firefighters were cool, sliding down those wicked awesome poles and just always being on the front scene of a burning building,” said Jacob Dukeman, senior at TRHS.
“When I heard that they had a fire science program at Tongue River, it was kind of exciting for me because I didn’t really know how to get into the firefighting scene.”
Dukeman has applied to community colleges to study fire science and has also applied to fight fire with the USFS this summer.
Classmate Trae Holliday, a senior, said the class impacted him more than he expected, changing his life direction.
“It looked like a fun class at the time. I really didn’t know what it was about, or anything about firefighting, for that matter,” Holliday said.
“Now, I’m applying for jobs, getting ready to go be on a hand line crew for the USFS,” he added. “It just brought my leadership skills out.”
Hanson brings more than 15 years of firefighting experience to the classroom. He has fought fire all over the West, is currently on the volunteer fire department for Big Horn, and brings energy and relevance to instruction indoors and out.
“Living in Montana or Wyoming, I’ve heard wildfire described as the grizzly bear that sleeps in your backyard. We all know it’s there, but we never really know when it’s going to wake up. It’s always a potential danger in our entire area,” Hanson said.
“It’s my goal not only to get them certified but if they do decide to join a volunteer fire department, which I strongly urge them to do, that when they complete this they can walk in the volunteer fire department and be a firefighter with a certain knowledge base that every chief would be proud to have on his department,” he added.
Superintendent Marty Kobza saw fire science classes offered elsewhere in the state and thought it would be a good opportunity for SCSD 1. Hanson’s position is funded through Fremont County Board of Cooperative Educational Services.
A $9,702.50 grant from Whitney Benefits enabled SCSD 1 to purchase needed equipment — a rescue dummy, EMS bag, chainsaws, tools, Nomex helmets, shirts and backpacks.
“Whitney Foundation came through in a huge way for us, and I can’t thank them enough because what that means for every class in the future is they’ll have the opportunity to train with the right equipment, the exact same thing they’ll use on the fire line or see in a department,” Hanson said.
Whether students are simulating past fires on the sand table — positioning toy fire trucks and firefighters in different situations — to learn how wind and topography affect fire behavior or they’re digging fire line, they’ll be ready to fight.
“It’s definitely worth it,” Dukeman said. “Even if you don’t want your red card, it’s even worth it just to be in the class. It’s a sense of being a team with everybody in the classroom.”
That skill, being able to be on a fire and be somebody the firefighter next to you would want to fight fire with, is crucial — on a fire and in life.