Of the Baker City Herald

Summer came in with heat and sweat and a throat-drying dust worthy of August.

And on a treeless ridge above Keating Valley, there was even a respectable sagebrush fire to complete the scorching scene.

This wasnt a real fire, although at eyebrow-singing range the flames were hot enough and the smoke sufficiently overwhelming.

The blaze wasnt real only in the sense that it wasnt some unpredicted act of nature, like a lightning bolt.

This fire was sparked by people, and for a particular purpose to teach.

To teach inmates from the Powder River Correctional Facility the vast difference between a textbook fire and one out on the rangelands, where clumps of cheatgrass explode like firecrackers, and rattlesnakes slither toward shelter.

To teach volunteer firefighters from rural departments how to best use the regions sophisticated radio system, whose electronic tentacles stretch into all but the deepest of canyons and connect agencies from La Grande to Vale.

And most important, to teach everyone involved the skills they might be called on to exercise, at any time during this worst drought in two decades, to save someones house or life from the merciless flames.

The students who probably benefited most Thursday are the inmates 40 from Powder River, the minimum-security prison in Baker City, and 10 more from the Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario.

All are trained in the theories of fighting wildfires; they know a pulaski from a shovel and how to button a yellow Nomex shirt.

But for most of these men, the only fires theyve seen were trapped in a woodstove or a backyard barbecue.

Were going to get some real smoke for these boys, said Buzz Harper, chief of the Keating Rural Fire Protection District, the agency that coordinated Thursdays training blaze. Were running this just like a real fire.

To further the illusion, the inmates themselves didnt know they were about to fight a real fire until the call came in about 10 a.m. from Perry Jacobs, Keatings assistant chief and the incident commander on the fire.

Jacobs efforts to make the day realistic were even assisted by an actual, and unanticipated, event.

The Bureau of Land Management fire engine he called from Vale didnt make it to Keating. The engine was en route when it was diverted to a more pressing job putting out an unplanned fire near Pleasant Valley.

Treating the Keating blaze in every respect as though it were an unexpected event highlights glitches in the firefighting system, which involves state and federal agencies as well as the all-volunteer rural fire districts and the prisons, said Keith Shollenberger of the Oregon Department of Forestry office in Baker City.

For example, he used Thursdays drill to figure out how long it takes prison officials to assemble the inmate crews and bus them out to the blaze.

Unforeseen obstacles such as the Pleasant Valley fire only make the day more useful.

The scope of Thursdays exercise officials planned to burn 75 to 100 acres was a crucial factor, too, Shollenberger said.

Last years inaugural practice fire at Keating covered about 10 acres, and involved 20 inmates.

This is about as real as you can get while still maintaining control, Shollenberger said Thursday. Its better than sitting in a classroom putting out paper fires.

Imaginary fires also dont puff out lung-searing smoke, of which there was quite a lot Thursday.

It mixed with dust from the inmates clanking shovels to render a gritty airborne gruel that infiltrated eyes and stuck to sweaty skin like Velcro.

The smoke wasnt all bad, though.

It did filter the sun a bit, taking a few degrees off on the summer solstice, when the orb stays longest in the sky.

Still it was well over 80 degrees at high noon.

Dont hesitate to take a drink of water, Allen Schmidt, a Powder River correctional officer, told the 10 men on his crew as they hacked out a fire line through the stubborn sage. You dont want to starve yourselves of water out here.

Five 10-man crews is the most the prisons have provided for firefighting duty, Shollenberger said.

The crews are an important source of manpower for the state and federal agencies responsible for battling most blazes, as well as for the cash-strapped rural districts such as Keatings.

Hiring two 10-man prison crews costs government agencies about $800 per day, Shollenberger said.

Private companies that supply firefighters charge around $4,000.

Shollenberger fears all five of the inmate crews will be busy this summer, which has the potential to be one of the smokiest on record.

Harper said the unirrigated ground around Keating is as dry now as it usually is in late July. Toss a smoldering cigarette out a car window in these parts, and the flames likely will follow within seconds.

Harpers fire district has a formidable arsenal, considering its just three years old a trio of 200-gallon engines and a pair of tankers, one carrying 1,000 gallons, the other 5,000.

Yet he knows nothing less than a Noahan downpour can douse a determined fire; and so Harper thinks of Thursdays fire as invaluable experience for all involved.

If a fire erupts in his 105,000-acre district this summer, Harper will feel more confident now, knowing it wont be the first time hes had to key the microphone on his radio and call for help.

We all have to work together anyway, he said. I hope we can do this every year.