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First steps in fighting fire

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A Conservation Corps of Minnesota student extinguishes her flare during a wildfire academy Wednesday at Camp Ripley. The students are learning from Minnesota Department of Natural Resources firefighters on how to fight wildfire. Steve Kohls/ Brainerd Dispatch Gallery and Video2 / 2

CAMP RIPLEY—About 110 young outdoors enthusiasts descended upon Camp Ripley this week for the first statewide Conservation Corps Minnesota Academy wildland fire training.

Camp Ripley, a state of Minnesota National Guard training facility near Little Falls, played host for the training, which serves as a conduit toward future work in the natural resources field.

Pete Leschak, a fire technician with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources forestry division, has served as an instructor for CCM fire training for decades. Typically, the CCM fire training is done over the course of a year, Leschak said. This time, the organizers decided it would be more efficient to do it all at once at the same location, hence the weeklong training at Camp Ripley.

"It takes a lot of time, money and energy to put on a weeklong course like this," Leschak said.

The CCM participants are young, enthusiastic and motivated, Leschak said. Camp Ripley has been a good host, he said, because lodging, outdoor training and classroom space is all available. Because of the convenience, the week included training at night, which isn't usually offered.

"That allows us to really get a little more in-depth on some of this stuff," Leschak said.

Ben Joppa from Plymouth joined the CCM because it would be good experience to help him find a job in the natural resources field. It's also valuable experience to have for someone who loves the outdoors, he said.

"You never know when you're going to need it," Joppa said.

Abby Cyr from Hillman was looking for something to do after college and loved the outdoors, so the CCM is a great fit. She wants to find another job after her CCM experience is over, she said, and plans to use her wildland fire training as much as she can.

"Hopefully, it'll lead to something in the future," Cyr said.

Coursework during the week includes basics of wildland firefighting, field exercises, water handling, pump operations and key aspects of fire weather, fire suppression and fire behavior. Students are broken down into eight different crews, which mimics how they would work in the field. The first half of the week was spent in the classroom, so by Wednesday, both Joppa and Cyr said they were ready to get out in the field for some hands-on training.

When it comes to wildfire firefighters, the DNR looks for people who are physically fit and are enthusiastic about the work, Leschak said.

"You have to want to do it, it's not a way to get rich," Leschak said. "I don't know what percentage of these might go on to pursue wildland firefighting, but some will."

The group of trainees this week at Camp Ripley is one of the best groups Leschak has seen in his years of instructing CCM students, he said. They have been highly engaged, he said, and like most years, love the hands-on training.

"I can tell you after doing this for decades, I know already what the (course evaluations) will say: 'hands-on stuff was just great, classroom was too long,'" Leschak said. "I can write the eval already."

Meghan Ring, from the DNR forestry division, went through the CCM wildland fire training in 2013. She really enjoyed it, she said, and found it interesting. The following year, she worked for The Nature Conservancy on a wildland fire crew in South Dakota.

Ring joined the CCM to get natural resources experience, she said, and not necessarily to pursue wildland firefighting. She realized how much she likes firefighting, she said, and is now pursuing it as a career.

"The community of fire is incredible, there's so many people that are willing to help," Ring said. "As far as the literal fire, it's an adrenaline rush to be out in a fire."

It's been a great experience to lead students through the same CCM courses Ring went through four years ago, she said. When she went through CCM training, she said, she didn't realize how far the training would take her in her career.

"It was a very cool experience to bring along with me," Ring said.

According to a news release, in 2016, the Minnesota Interagency Fire Center in Grand Rapids mobilized 15 CCM crews who assisted in wildland fire incidents. Last year, there were 1,423 fires that burned a total of 12,588 acres in Minnesota.

Spenser Bickett

Spenser Bickett covers the Brainerd City Council and education. A native of the Twin Cities, Bickett attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he majored in journalism with a minor in political science. After graduation, he worked for the International Falls Journal as a staff writer before coming to Brainerd.

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