SENECA - The stage was set as 30 uniformed students armed with shovels and pick-axes marched along a dusty dirt road, winding through Malheur National Forest, toward a man with a drip torch.
The torch holder waited about a half-mile down the road, looking for ideal spots along a shrubby, downhill slope, to set on fire.
The exercise was part of the Malheur National Forest's annual Fire Guard School, a week-long entry-level course designed to introduce rookie firefighters to the basics of fire safety. On June 21, 30 candidates got their first dose of a real-life fire after about an acre of forestland was intentionally set ablaze.
"We try to make it as real life as possible," said Malheur Forest Handcrew Captain Rowdy Nash. "We have at least six instructors available to answer any questions, and at least two engines in case the fire gets out of hand."
The Malheur National Forest must obtain a series of permits from the federal government before beginning the exercise.
After arriving at the scene of the fire, the students gathered around instructors for a briefing, as smoke from the fire below sifted through the surrounding trees. From there, students volunteered to take specific roles in the fight.
They were also informed that a helicopter would hover above the blaze, ready to drop a 250-gallon bucketful of water.
"These things (helicopters) drop roughly 2,000 pounds of water," said Nash. "If you get hit, it can kill you. You have to really be heads up when you're working under these things."
Students were also warned about falling branches and the potential for other smaller fires to be sparked as a result of the wind the helicopter would generate.
"Everyone needs to make sure they're looking up and you're always aware of what's around you," said Steve Cross, Blue Mountain fire manager officer. "Anything in a tree has the potential to come down, and the helicopter above will be giving the fire oxygen, which is what it wants."
After the roles were set, the first wave of students started clearing a perimeter around the fire zone by removing roots, snags, and anything else that could potentially catch fire.
"We try to make the perimeter as small as possible," said Nash. "It's essential that these guys move quickly to prevent the fire from spreading and to minimize damange."
The second wave of students came equipped with shovels, and they started digging a 12- to 16-inch-deep line around the perimeter over the cleared areas to prevent the fire from spreading farther into the forest.
Other students served as lookouts and kept watch of the fire's behavior from a distance.
When it was contained, water was funneled into the fire zone to put out any remaining flames. Then, students had to crawl around the forest floor looking for hot spots and anything that could potentially flare up again.
"This part is essential because it would be really easy for a gust of wind to start this whole thing over again," said Kevin Brock, assistant fire manager officer at Malheur National Forest.
After successfully completing the exercise, students are a step closer to becoming qualified as crewmen on either a hand or engine fire crew. They also must take a written test, and must make 70 percent or higher to graduate.
According to Nash, almost all students graduate, but the problem is keeping them on board.
"We have a hard time getting people to stick with it," said Nash. "Most of the people here are recent high school graduates or college students, and it doesn't leave them with much of a life besides fighting fires."
Others, like recent University of Oregon graduate Seth Wrinkle, just want to try something different before starting a new career.
"I'm learning a lot about fires and I really just wanted to get away for a while," he said. "It's too soon to tell whether or not I'll stick with it, I'm just trying to experience something new."