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Wildfire-fighters get new training in handling rigs

by JEFF BARNARD Statesman Journal |

GRANTS PASS — Two summers ago, Wade DeBraal was headed down a Colorado freeway on his way to fight a wildfire when the van in front of him swerved onto the shoulder, then rolled over and over, killing five of his fellow firefighters.

"I don’t think I’ll ever forget it," DeBraal said.

Neither has Grayback Forestry Inc. owner Mike Wheelock. That’s why DeBraal and others who drive the 12 20-person crews that Grayback dispatches to wildfires across the country were getting special training this week on handling big top-heavy rigs in critical situations on freeways.

"In the fire industry, more firefighters are killed each year by transportation than the fire itself," Wheelock said as he stood in the rainy parking lot of the Josephine County Fairgrounds watching employees pilot trucks through lines of orange cones under direction from instructors for Colorado Protective Services-Aspen Inc.

"One of the things we did tell the families (of the victims) was that we would continue to do the best training for the people," Wheelock said.

Private contractors are increasingly providing the crews that battle wildfires — 290 20-person crews last summer — and several are following Wheelock’s lead, both replacing vans prone to rollovers and offering special driving courses, said Debbie Miley, executive director of the National Wildfire Suppression Association.

One of them is Ferguson Management in Albany, which fields 25 20-person fire crews in the summer.

"I believe the industry is taking a serious look at it and seeing that is a need," said Bob Ferguson, regional manager of the company.

The five Grayback firefighters killed in the van rollover outside Parachute, Colo., were among 23 fatalities in 2002 connected to wildfires, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.