The Stampede

“One Sir, Two Sir, Three Sir”

Nathan Hefner

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This past week, I had the opportunity to take part in America’s favorite pastime- firefighting.  You might be thinking, ¨Nathan you are too young, there is no was that they would put you into a live fire…¨ OH you would be so wrong, but I will get to that part in a bit.  

 

So the week started off with a slap in the face.  Right when all 170 explorer arrived to the Camp Parks Army Reserve base (where the camp was held), they fed us a huge lunch.  It was everything you could ever want: burgers, fruit, chips, drinks, and so much more. Right when I started getting comfortable they brought out the drill instructors.  We have all seen videos of drill instructors yelling and screaming at recruits. I know this because I have watched a few myself, and let me say those videos don’t do justice.  Immediately, they had us running from the mess hall down to a large turf field in the center of the base. From there they gave us a friendly welcome consisting of 200 pushups, 250 sit ups, army crawls, turf burns, and so much more.  Just to put it in perspective four explorers had to drop out to get medical treatment and one even went to the hospital.

So the rest of the first day comes to a close and we are finally able to go to our berrics to sleep.  Surprisingly the sleep was great…………………. Until it wasn’t. My first morning started a 4:50 with the pleasant sounds of hands slamming into metal doors and chiefs screaming for us to get outside faster.  I am not exaggerating when I say my heart rate went from 60- 220 real quick. PT started two minutes after we woke up and my first taste of a military morning. In truth, it was not that bad, just a couple sets of pushups, some burpees, and to top it all out a minute plank and we were on our way to breakfast.  Fast forward two hours and we are being loaded onto a bus in full gear going to the Livermore- Pleasanton fire training tower. Here we spent 8 hours throwing ladders, conducting blind searches, advancing hose line, forcible entry, and confined space training. Shortly after getting back we had a four hour class.  It was a good class but I mean C´MON! Did they not expect at least ten explorers to fall asleep? Well, apparently not because our fire behavior class became time for pushups.

Fast forward to day three.  We are now training for auto extrication.  I was busting tires, smashing windows and popping doors off like an absolute boss.  In case you are wondering, yes I was able to use the Jaws of Life, and yes, they are just as fun to use as you would expect.  After destroying five more cars it was time for another class. This time no one fell asleep. This was about a firefighter who was on duty and almost died.  Not from fire but from a random civilian stabbing him. He told us about the PTSD that followed and how we can avoid making his mistakes of not getting help. People usually don’t think of firefighters as the ones to cry but every person in that room was crying by the end.  

 

BAM now it’s day four and it is wildland day.  A day full of cutting line and being out in the woods with your best buds.  That’s partly true but it’s not exactly a joy trip. Almost everyone has heard of hot shots, but for those who don’t know they are basically the special ops of the fire service.  They work crazy long hours in order to protect the community. Sometimes working two weeks straight using only hand tools. We spent a full day learning how to optimize our time and how to be efficient while working wildland.  I even got the opportunity to race one of the CAL FIRE cutting hand line. Lets just say that they have been doing it a lot longer than I have, ad that was about it for the wildland day.

“You WILL be challenged today, you WILL cry, your body might feel like you cannot  go further, you might want to quit, but just know that if you survive today you will be stronger than you ever have.”  -Cadre. Before I tell you about the fifth day let me tell you that every word said above is true. It’s 8am and we had to be at the meeting grounds five minutes ago.  We sprinted but they were ready to give us a beating. All I heard was “FRONT LEANING REST POSITION NOW!” So now I am holding a plank and the Cadre told us that we would hold this until everyone was down there.  Fifteen minutes later everyone is there and they tell us to get our ___ down to the track to start the team building day. Our warm up consisted of dead man walks, army crawls, lunges, and a couple hundred pushups.  Already people were starting to lose faith. About an hour and a half later we are sprinting up a hill to get to the Army confidence course. We got into pairs and ran through the army certified course. I am not going to lie this part of the day was actually fun.  As you can tell fun is a loosely used word in this story. Alright we are lined up again and we are now running to a little house where we are told that the house will be our base for the rest of the day. It is around 10 o’clock just keep that in in the back of your head.  So we are now starting the real test of team building. Our group was given one 24 foot ladder, three LDH hose lines, two hose bundles and eight SCBA packs. Then we started our hike in the pouring rain. It was on the first loop about six miles in where I finally starting doubting myself.  I could feel my back crying and my shoulder chafing from the 50 pound LDH hoses line. It felt like I could not go any further and just like that I dropped to a knee from the pain. Luckily I was able to switch to a SCBA pack which are much easier to carry. We finished the last half mile back to our base camp ready for lunch and a quick rest.  Soon we were back at in the pouring rain going until we drop. Half way through our second loop I was given the 24 foot ladder, two hand tools, and a SCBA pack. Although the blisters on my feet told me to stop going the comradery with the other explorers kept us going. We actually started coming together and laughing. Eight hours and Eleven miles into a hike where we were beaten into the ground we were laughing and having a good time.  This was one of the most powerful experiences while I was at the academy. I learned how to push myself and learned that I am much stronger than I thought I was.

Alright I know the last paragraph was long so stand up and get a quick stretch in because this is what you have been waiting for.  The last day of the academy was BURN DAY! The best day of them all. It started out with me being in my first live fire. They sat us down into a large room and lit a fire in the front of the room.  It was magnificent. I saw the fire rolling overhead and the heat surrounding me making it feel like I was in a really hot hottub. Next for me was the smoke room, but don’t be fooled by the name this is the most dangerous room.  So dangerous we were given a 45 minute class on how to stay calm. We are given the green light and an instructor leads us into the room. We are crawling on our hands and knees in complete darkness until the instructor said,”Stop.”  At this point I was ready for some fire, I mean it is a big reason why I came to the academy. The instructor takes us around one corner and we are hit with a blast of heat like we opened the oven after cooking at 450 degrees. I look up and see a fire that is raging.  It is over fifteen feet tall and running HOT. They sit us down only a couple feet away from the fire and start pointing out things like how the smoke is coming down on us. Only two minutes into the room I can feel my body trying starting to get hot, really hot. I could see my turn out pants starting to smoke and every breath felt like I was getting burned in my nostrils.  If that doesn’t tell you how hot it was I don’t know what can. About three seconds after I see this I see one of my fellow explorer dart out of the room. Soon we were all told to get out of the room. We made it out and had a talk about what just happened. The instructor told us that the fire was around 700 degrees, and the kid that darted out. He suffered minor burns on his foot.  Nothing that stopped him from going on but, it gave us the reality that it could have been any of us. The rest of the day was a bunch more fire and fire attack. I actually go the opportunity to go into a building a put out a real fire. Nothing feels better than going in with a squad of guys that you know have your back and putting out a fire. The last event I was able to do was a burn trailer.  This is a propane fueled prop that is supposed to resemble a house. When it was my turn I was on the nozzle, the first one in. Trying my best to keep calm I swiftly worked my way into the trailer from the outside. Opening the door I saw this beautiful wall of flame that was at the end of the trailer. Going straight in I was blasted from the side by a second fire that I was being consumed in. Luckily I was able to put it out before it did any damage.  Continuing to the back I started fighting this fire hard. I mean real hard. I was hitting the fire from every angle trying my best to put it out quick. Just like that it was out. A quick fist bump with my buddies and I was heading back to Camp Parks for dinner.

This academy was not just a time for me to learn how to become a firefighter.  It was a time for me to step out of my comfort zone and grow as a person. As I reflect on my time at the CFEA I realized that I have grown so much as a person.  I learned that teamwork can be a powerful tool, that I am much stronger physically and mentally that I ever could have imagined, and that you won’t get far in life running away from the fire so you might as well run head first at it.

 

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