Cal Fire recruits, crews step up preparations for fire season following drought

AMADOR COUNTY, Calif. (KTXL) — A drought alert for California carries with it concerns of a bad fire season.

It’s one reason why the hiring and training of seasonal firefighters have gotten off to an earlier start this year.

For a Cal Fire hand crew, cutting a 4-foot control line through light timber and brush on hilly terrain is bread-and-butter work. Then, led by chainsaws and followed up with hand tools, the line has to move fast to beat a fire.

But safety and communication are as important as speed for a certain crew of new recruits going through the Amador-El Dorado Cal Fire Academy.

“We don’t want the first time they do this to be on a real fire,” explained Capt. Nick Pimlott of the Amador-El Dorado Cal Fire Unit.

“We want them to say they had good training. We want to be able to train in a setting where it’s a controlled environment like this,” he continued.

Seasonal academies don’t start until May, but Cal Fire is gearing up faster this year.

“We see fire season coming and it’s going to come a lot faster than last year,” Pimlott said.

The firefighters want to train in as close to real-world conditions as possible — but fighting a real wildland fire will be different.

“It’s always a shell shock coming into the academy, especially for new people,” Jamie Bardwell told FOX40.

Bardwell is a veteran seasonal firefighter who is using the training to build stamina one can’t acquire in the gym, but she said working long hours in fire and smoke doesn’t compare.

“This is a very low-key, mild day. No wind, it’s not a hundred degrees, it’s not dry,” she observed.

For rookies, thoughts on the dangers of the job are eased by the work they’re doing now.

“You think on it a little bit, but you definitely fall back on your training and trust the people that lead you into it — and fall back on your training,” said Dylan Speer, a firefighter recruit.

No one can precisely predict what kind of fire season lies ahead, but Cal Fire does not want to be caught off guard.

“We are preparing for the worst,” Bardwell said.

Seasonal firefighters were once hired on for a minimum of four months, but Cal Fire says they now routinely work a nine-month schedule because fire seasons are longer.

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