ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — More than likely, Brian Henington will never forget what happened last year in Yarnell, Ariz., when 19 firefighters were trapped and killed in a box canyon by a fast-moving wildfire.
Henington is a firefighter, too – and a teacher.
“Yarnell Hill is a big discussion we have,” he said in a recent interview. “We will probably never know what led to that, but we try to look at it from an investigative perspective, rather than a hindsight or judgmental perspective.”
Henington is one of several fire sciences instructors at Central New Mexico Community College who are traveling around the state to give required refresher courses at no charge to volunteer firefighters. The classes are offered under a three-year, $56,000 contract between CNM and the State Forestry Division.
Henington paused for a moment during a recent class he was teaching at Santa Fe’s Fire Station 8.
“Today,” he said, “we’re teaching the importance of the safety zone. We will never know why those 19 men left their safety zone. All we know is that they left, then became trapped in a box canyon – one way in, one way out – and couldn’t retreat. We also know that the terrain was treacherous and that the hill was under a severe drought, like we are today. The fuel on the ground was extremely flammable, probably even explosive.”
Henington said fires and firefighting are so complex that it’s easy for someone to forget basic material – thus the state mandate for the refresher classes specific to wildland firefighting.
In New Mexico, the fire season is just getting underway. “The experts,” Henington said, “meteorologists and fire behavior analysts, are divided on how severe it might be. It’s about a 50-50 split. (The month of) May could be wet, or it could be dry.”
In a recent bosque fire in Belen, the fuel on the ground was “so explosive that the wind didn’t have to be a major player,” Henington said.
Henington and the other CNM instructors provide eight-hour refresher classes and 32-hour intermediate wildland firefighting classes to the volunteers. The longer classes are offered over two weekends.
Several for-profit businesses also have teaching contracts, but CNM is the only publicly funded college involved.
To meet the requirements of the State Forestry Division contract, Mike Kavanaugh, chairman of CNM’s Fire Sciences program, has hired several new instructors. Most are also teaching classes at CNM.
Knowing how treacherous fires can be, and with Yarnell Hill a fresh and haunting memory, Henington said all of the classes zero in on safety.
Instructions include the deployment of fire shelters, tent-like structures designed as a last resort to shield firefighters from flames and heat. Firefighters at Yarnell Hill used shelters as a last line of defense, but the intensity of the blaze proved to be too much.
Instructors also talk about such potential hazards as rattlesnakes, oil and gas production, and a sometimes volatile situation near the Mexican border.
“We try to teach avoidance,” Henington said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t engage fires – we’re not going to sit around and watch it. But the No. 1 concept to remember is that you need to go home at night.”