New York Wildfire & Incident Management Academy trains future heroes

For wildland firefighters, the worst possible scenario is a sudden shift in wind direction that blows the fire they’re chasing back at them, moving too fast to outrun. In that do-or-die scenario they deploy a last line of defense called a fire shelter. 

During an exercise last week at the New York Wildfire & Incident Management Academy’s annual fall training courses at a state Department of Environmental Conservation facility in Ridge, trainees practiced diving into their fire shelters — human-sized bags made of aluminum foil, silica and fiberglass, designed to deflect heat and flames and trap breathable air beneath them. 

Fire shelters are an essential element of wildland fire safety training, especially in the western U.S. and on the windy East End. Just as most police officers go entire careers without firing their weapon, most wildland firefighters will never be forced to dive inside the bag, pull it around them and keep their face as low as possible to the ground to prevent the fire’s intense heat from literally burning up their lungs, academy officials said in interviews.

While the trainees in Ridge were practicing with canvas bags, the device itself is a reminder of how violent and capricious wind-driven wildfires can be, and a testament to the fortitude it takes to fight them. Between 2007 and 2016, 17% of wildland firefighter deaths in the U.S. resulted from being entrapped by fire, according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.

The academy, which has trained about 8,000 firefighters since its inception in 1998, is one of only a handful nationwide that are open to anyone. Most such academies serve only in-state residents, while the NYWIMA offers training to anyone from anywhere. 

In 25 years, the academy has trained firefighters from 38 states as well as Puerto Rico, Spain, Canada and Australia, according to founder Chuck Hamilton, who created it in response to what Newsday called New York state’s worst wildfire in nearly a century. 

The summer of 1995 on the East End was bone dry and suffocatingly hot. Normally, fewer than 200 Americans die from heat annually, but that year the heat felled more than 1,000.

So when a brush fire — whose origin remains a mystery — was sparked in the woods near Suffolk County Community College’s Eastern campus in Northampton, it raged for days through the tinder-dry pine barrens forest. Pillars of fire raced hundreds of feet into the sky and choking smoke consumed the area, turning late summer blue skies gunmetal gray. The blazes ultimately scorched 12 square miles before finally being extinguished.

An army of 2,000 firefighters, from every department on Long Island as well as New York City’s FDNY and 10 other states and federal agencies, battled the apocalyptic blaze. 

“Firefighters had never seen anything like it,” Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, told News 12 at the time about the volunteer departments. “They were used to fighting kitchen fires, so they were ill-equipped to do this in the first place.”

The blaze came to be known as the Sunrise Fires because it was so ferocious it did something no Long Island firefighter had ever seen: It jumped the 400-foot-wide expanse of Sunrise Highway and raced toward Westhampton Beach, shutting down both the main route in and out of the Hamptons and the Long Island Rail Road. 

At the time, Mr. Hamilton was a regional supervisor for the state DEC , and this was his first wildfire. 

During the battle, Mr. Hamilton worked with a group of wildland firefighters from Colorado. Before heading home, they invited him to come to Colorado and train at their wildland firefighting academy. 

“We want to help train New York in the [National] Incident Management System and wildland firefighting,” he recalls them telling him, referring to a nationally standardized approach to emergency management taught in New York and numerous other states. 

“So if it’s a flood, if it’s an earthquake, if it’s a wildland fire, it doesn’t matter,” Mr. Hamilton explained. “The process is the same.” 

Two years later, he flew to Colorado and trained with deeply experienced Western wildland firefighters during their annual June sessions. He returned the following June and solicited the help and support of the instructors and incident commanders there — and in Octobern 1998, NYWIMA was born. Mr. Hamilton said he had to borrow $10,000 and seek a lot of local assistance to get things up and running. 

“We were quickly adopted, fortunately, by the [Central] Pine Barrens Commission,” he said. “And that gave us some organization, some goals and objectives and really good management.

“The Brookhaven National Lab helped us,” he continued. “Suffolk County Fire Rescue Emergency Services helped us. All came together to help us set up an academy with about 10 wildland incident command system courses. We [run] the academy right here at Brookhaven National Lab with the great support of the lab and a lot of our supporting local, county and state agencies and fire departments.”

In its first year, the academy trained 107 firefighters. One year, the class size ballooned to 600. 

When the pine barrens again burned out of control in 2012, there were far more trained wildland firefighters in the area and the blaze was contained after burning through about 1,000 acres. 

The instructors who train the students at NYWIMA come from all over. 

“We had the Massachusetts Forest Service people for many, many years,” Mr. Hamilton said. “The New Jersey Forest Service, Pennsylvania — just people from all over the East Coast that support this academy.” 

New York-based instructors reciprocate by teaching at academies around the country. 

Fighting wildfires is deadly serious business, a fact that informs the rigorous training students receive at NYWIMA. 

“Before you’re allowed to do this work, you’ve got to do a pack test,” said John Scott, a DEC forest ranger based on Long Island. “That’s a three-mile walk you have to do in a certain amount of time with a 45-pound pack on your back. So you might have a pack, and you might be carrying one of the water cans on your back, which is going to be pretty heavy as well.” 

Either way, he said, “You can be carrying a lot when you’re out there.”

Academy students train in specialized wildfire fighting suits. 

“We have our Nomex suits,” Mr. Scott said, referring to a fire-resistant fiber developed by Dupont. “From head to toe, we’re supposed to be wearing stuff that’s fire resistant. Even our undergarments are supposed to be more wool instead of synthetics, because when synthetics burn they melt onto your skin.

“So everything that you’re wearing has to be fireproof, right down to your boots, so that your soles don’t melt … we also wear gloves, helmets, eye protection and ear protection.” 

The academy teaches students a spectrum of key skills, from courses in wildfire behavior and investigating a fire’s origins to the use of portable water pumps and the safe use of wildland fire chain saws, drones, off-road vehicles and other equipment. Trainees use hand tools to dig fire lines — three- to four-foot-wide dirt paths that can stop or slow the fire and serve as a clear escape route. They practice rolling out hundreds of feet of portable water hoses. They dive into mock fire shelters over and over again. 

The pine barrens are a rare jewel of an ecosystem perched on top of an aquifer and found in only two U.S. states: New York and New Jersey. The pine forests grow dense with underbrush over time, so wild fires are as necessary as they can be insidious. Only the heat of fire opens the pines that spill the seeds to regenerate the forest. 

In the wake of the 1995 Sunrise Fires, local firefighters and conservationists put greater focus on what are called prescribed burns — fires set intentionally to burn off thick layers of underbrush on the forest floor, which are carefully controlled and managed through the systems taught at the academy. 

“A lot of the trees will readily burn and only release their seeds when a fire comes through,” Mr. Scott said. “So our goal isn’t to burn all of it at once … it’s to kind of rotate the burn to certain areas every few years — just so we can keep the amount of material down but still have a healthy ecosystem.” 

A new generation of environmentally and ecologically-minded firefighters is coming of age among the ranks of the academy’s graduates. 

For Sam Acampora, an academy trainee and a volunteer Port Jefferson firefighter, her future is informed by her past. 

“I probably have to give most of the credit to my Dad,” she said. “He started me in the environmental field. He worked for the DEC for about 38 years … that’s how I got into fire and the ecology and science.” 

Ms. Acampora, 23, joined Port Jefferson’s volunteer fire department at 14, three years before she was even old enough to fight a fire. She knows what she’s training to do is dangerous, but it makes sense to her.

“There are definitely a lot of risks to fire, but if you love being outdoors, you love hiking for hours — and many miles — and just helping the ecosystem and protecting the public from wildfires, this is the job for you,” she said.

Judy Jakobsen, executive director of the Central Pine Barrens Commission, said she’s proud of the commission’s work with the academy. 

“I feel like we’re truly training our future heroes on how to protect their local communities,” she said.