BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY MICHAEL YORK
24 Forest Service Hot Shots hopefuls donned 45-pound packs and took to a 3-mile timed course during qualification testing at the Forest Service office in Old Town on Sunday.
OLD TOWN, Maine — When a wildland fire breaks out in a remote area of the state where there is no local department to douse the flames, the region’s Hot Shots — an elite group of specially trained firefighters — are called in to do the job.
“In unorganized territories, we are the fire department,” State Forest Ranger Jerry Parsons said Sunday. “In organized towns, the local fire department is there, and our crews can be used for backup.”
Maine Hot Shots, who are trained by the Maine Forest Service to fight brush and forest fires, also occasionally are sent out of state or to Canada when massive fires burn uncontrolled.
Penobscot Valley Hot Shots, one of four Hot Shot groups in the state, held its annual training and recertification on Sunday at the Old Town Forestry office.
The group’s 24 members spent part of the day learning about new wildland firefighting techniques, were updated on state and federal rules and regulations and heard predictions about what the coming fire season in Maine is expected to be like.
They learned about risk management, firefighter safety and fire behavior, then practiced deploying an emergency shelter, which must be done in 20 seconds. The training day ended when they loaded 45-pound packs onto their backs for their annual strength and agility test.
“It’s an ongoing process to keep the crews ready to go,” Parsons said.
The “pack test” requires the firefighters to carry their 45-pound pack for three miles in less than 45 minutes.
Gabrielle “Gabby” Schrage of Hampden, who has been a firefighter and emergency medical technician for seven years, said after the strenuous test that she wished she had trained more.
“It’s kind of grueling,” she said.
Schrage, who works for the fire departments in Glenburn and Hampden and for Capital Ambulance, said being a Hot Shot is a challenge that she finds rewarding.
The first organized Hot Shot program in Maine started in 1976 in Brownville, and the Penobscot Valley unit has been around for about a decade, Parsons said. Hot Shot firefighters can be as young as age 16, but only those 18 and older are allowed to fight forest fires outside of Maine.
Most of the members of the Penobscot Valley Hot Shots are full-time firefighters, but that is not a requirement, Parsons said. Having basic wildland firefighting training, and training in wildland fire behavior and weather, are needed, he said.
Parsons invited those interested in being becoming Hot Shots to apply for the Maine State Wildfire Training Academy, scheduled for two weekends, June 5-6 and June 12-13, at Thomas College in Waterville. The training academy also will offer a number of refresher courses.
Those who want more information about the academy can call Alan Hammond of the Maine Forest Service at 287-4993.