Of the Baker City Herald

Before you sling a shovelful of dirt to smother a wildfire, you must wield the humble pencil.

Before you fight fires, you learn how to fight fires.

And one place you can acquire the necessary knowledge is a Baker City classroom.

At Blue Mountain Community College's local campus, to be specific.

Blue Mountain, which has its main campus in Pendleton, offers more than a dozen firefighting courses in Baker City including the two classes you must pass before you can be hired to swing an axe or aim a nozzle.

College officials signed an agreement in 2002 with the Pacific Northwest Wildfire Coordinating Group in Boise, said Diana Hammon, Blue Mountain's director of distance and extended learning.

That group represents several firefighting agencies, including the Forest Service, BLM and Oregon Department of Forestry.

In the past, those agencies usually trained their own firefighters, said Matt Reidy, fire management officer for the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, based in Baker City.

But over the past 15 years, both the number of wildfires in the West, and their average size, have grown.

That fiery trend has forced the Forest Service and other agencies to bolster their firefighting ranks. But they have struggled to schedule enough classes to both train new employees and to ensure veteran firefighters master advanced tactics, Reidy said.

Hence the deal with Blue Mountain and other community colleges.

andquot;They've filled a niche that we really needed to fill,andquot; Reidy said. andquot;It's been a really good relationship.andquot;

Hammon said the agreement succeeds in part because it's simple.

andquot;(The agencies) supply the curriculum, and we provide the instruction,andquot; she said.

The Wildlife Coordinating Group's participation ensures that community college classes cover every subject the agencies require firefighters to study.

And that means any student who passes those two basic courses is certified to battle blazes not only for a state or federal agency, but also as an employee for any of the private companies that send hundreds of workers to the fire front lines every summer.

Although the Forest Service and other agencies appreciate their alliance with community colleges, the biggest beneficiaries might well be the people who fight fires for a living or who want to try a job that's hard, dirty and dangerous, but also pays more than most summer work.

(The Forest Service's base wage for an entry-level firefighter is about $9.80 per hour. Private companies' wages vary.)

A decade ago, prospective firefighters could not easily distinguish themselves from the other entry-level job applicants, none of whom had ever dug a fire line or donned the shirt of bright-yellow, fire-resistant fabric that is to the firefighter what camouflage fatigues are to the soldier.

But now, with classes scheduled during the winter and spring, people who want to spend the summer dousing flames can turn in their job applications with a big bright advantage: basic firefighter certification.

Such applicants are attractive because neither the agencies nor the private companies needs to send them to a week-long fire school, Reidy said.

andquot;A person who has taken the classes before summer might have a leg up,andquot; he said.

Gary Timm of Baker City, who has taught firefighting classes for Blue Mountain for about five years, agrees.

andquot;People are definitely taking the courses and then going right to work,andquot; Timm said.

He said his classes usually fill quickly; the required basic courses sometimes even warrant waiting lists.

And he's teaching new topics every year.

andquot;The first year we had two (courses), the second year about nine,andquot; Timm said. andquot;The past two years it's really exploded.andquot;

Initially, community colleges concentrated on the basic courses, which qualify students for entry-level jobs only, Timm said.

But now both Blue Mountain and Treasure Valley Community College in Ontario also offer advanced courses for veteran firefighters.

Reidy said experienced firefighters who want to climb higher on the career ladder and the wage chart can fortify their resumes by attending community college classes.

andquot;These courses help folks get to that skill level,andquot; Reidy said. andquot;It helps them become more attractive candidates when jobs become available.andquot;

Wallowa-Whitman officials need to fill about 17 firefighting jobs this winter, he said.

Most are advanced positions, open only to experienced firefighters, Reidy said.

Forest Service wages for those jobs range from about $11 an hour to $17 or $18.

Reidy also expects to hire one or two entry-level firefighters.

The proliferation of firefighting classes has helped private firefighting companies as well as public agencies.

andquot;The classes have been great we've definitely used them a lot,andquot; said Jason Stone of Baker City, who co-owns Stone Wildfire with his brother, Philip.

Jason Stone said he and his brother have attended advanced courses at Blue Mountain, some of which are required by the agencies that hire private firefighting firms.

andquot;Especially for private contractors, it's been a wonderful thing,andquot; Stone said of Blue Mountain's growing curriculum.

The proliferation of firefighting courses also has expanded the pool of people qualified to battle blazes, said Mike Wheelock, president of Grayback Forestry Inc., one of Oregon's larger suppliers of private firefighting crews.

The trend has had little effect on Grayback, Wheelock said, because the company employs its own teachers. Grayback, which has offices in La Grande and John Day, sometimes even lends its instructors to teach classes for community colleges, he said.

But Wheelock said an applicant who has already passed the two required courses would stand out among a crop of other applicants who have never confronted a blaze either in a forest or in a classroom.

andquot;It would be a little advantage to the employee,andquot; Wheelock said. andquot;We'd definitely look at their certification.andquot;

Stone, who hires six to eight firefighters each summer, said he appreciates not needing to send every new employee to training.

Every year more applicants arrive with their basic firefighting certification in hand.

andquot;There's definitely been a lot more people who have called us who already had taken the classes,andquot; he said.