After a devastating wildfire season last year in central Texas, Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge has been helping prepare local fire departments for what could be another active season. Concern over the fire season prompted many city, county, state and federal agencies throughout the region to sign up for the refuges free basic wildland firefighting course.
Weve been offering wildland firefighter training to local fire departments for more than a decade, said Eric Krueger, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fire operations specialist and course coordinator. With last year producing the single most destructive wildfire in Texas history, we had a lot more interest in the course this year.
In central Texas alone, last years Bastrop fire burned almost 32,400 acres, destroyed nearly 1,700 homes and businesses, and forced 5,000 residents to evacuate.
Since 2001, Balcones Canyonlands Refuge has partnered with local fire departments to host the course. Participants historically have been local firefighters and emergency services personnel. Priority always has been given to departments near the refuge. This year, because of the great interest, the refuge offered the course twice, and 56 participants from across the region took part in classes and fieldtraining exercises in January and March.
It was really neat to put it all in perspective, not just sit through a PowerPoint for 40 hours, said one of the participants, Tim Robeson, a lieutenant with North Lake Travis FireRescue. After the participants completed the courses classroom portion, they spent a day at the refuge practicing their newly learned skills, including a live fire exercise. You take class after class after class and some guys never do get to go out after a training, so the field exercise was invaluable.
As an urban firefighter, Robeson said, the wildland course gave him new ideas on how to do his own job more effectively.
Urban firefighters depend primarily on water from standard fire trucks, known as brush trucks. But Fish and Wildlife uses a lot of hand crews and machinery to fight fire, like bulldozers and maintainers, he said. You arent always going to be able to get in with a brush truck, so now we look at different strategies and tactics.
Most of the course instructors were Service wildland firefighters based at Balcones Canyonlands Refuge who regularly fight wildfires in rugged Hill Country terrain.
We were taught by instructors with real experience, and that was really unique, said Robeson.
The Hill Country landscape consists of shallow canyons situated among open grasslands, Ashe juniper forests and dense growths of scrub trees called shinnery. One management priority for the Balcones Canyonlands Refuge fire crew is to conduct prescribed burns to help maintain the oak shinnery for the benefit of the blackcapped vireo, an endangered bird that builds its hanging nest in the refuges lowgrowing oaks.
The refuge was established in 1992 to conserve the nesting habitat of the blackcapped vireo and goldencheeked warbler, another endangered bird that nests exclusively in central Texas. During nesting season, these two birds can be found within the refuges Ashe juniper and oak woodlands.
In addition, the refuge is about 45 minutes northwest of fastgrowing Austin, whose urban area is rapidly expanding into the wooded hillsides. To this end, refuge firefighters work closely with communities to ensure homes have defensible space. Their efforts have resulted in the nearby city of Lago Vista becoming a Texas Firewise Community.
We work really closely with these local fire departments and help each other out a lot, said Krueger. We want to get as many qualified wildland firefighters as possible because its not only good for our neighbors, its good for the refuge and the wildlife that depends on it.
Nancy Brown is a Service public outreach specialist for Texas/Oklahoma.