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Dobyns-Bennett club sparks interest in firefighting careers

Deborah Peterson • Apr 1, 2019 at 10:28 AM

Dobyns-Bennett High School seniors are all fired up about the new Wildland Firefighter Training program being offered this year. The unique opportunity began last September when students asked geometry teacher Bryan Kerns how to explore a career in firefighting. An 18-year veteran firefighter, Bryan spent two years with the U. S. Forest Service in Utah and now serves part-time with the Virginia Department of Forestry.

“I have some pictures up in my classroom and started telling stories about firefighting, and students would say, ‘How do you get into that?’” Bryan said. Due to the interest, he decided to offer an after-school club for seniors which he named the Pulaski Club. The pulaski is the invaluable lead tool on a fire crew, which is part axe and part mattock.

The Pulaski Club currently consists of 11 members, who meet twice a month to learn about every aspect of firefighting. “Some members just do it for fun, while others plan to make a career of it,” explained Bryan. Those interested in earning the Red Card (National Wildland Firefighter Certification) must complete at least 20 hours of online training on their own time.

Seniors Gage Black and Matthew Barnicki will both have the opportunity to earn their Red Cards this spring. Gage has goals to be a game warden. “This program creates an opportunity to further myself in that career even before I get to college,” he said. He has completed the four required online courses and is training for the pack test, the final step in earning the Red Card. The challenging test consists of hiking three miles while carrying a 45-pound pack, to be completed in 45 minutes or less. Gage plans to be a firefighter during the summer while attending Northeast State Community College. Matthew, who is interested in the forestry ecosystem, plans to attend the University of Tennessee to study forestry. “I feel really special because this is the very first year that D-B has been doing this. This is my senior year, so it’s the perfect time to do this,” said Matthew.

Both Bryan and the students agree their favorite part of the certification program is the ‘prescribed burn,’ where they are allowed to experience and observe an actual fire. Twice in March, they took the ultimate field trip, where they observed from a safe distance actual forestry crews in action during the burn. Putting in around eight hours at each burn, they experienced every detail that goes into a prescribed burn. They donned their gear, hiked into the burn unit, checked the control lines prior to ignition, listened to the safety briefing and then watched the firefighting crew at work.

Bryan said when he brought his students to the burn, other firefighters were reluctant to have them there until they saw how well-organized and knowledgeable they were.

“Once they started having conversations with my students, they were pretty impressed,” said Bryan. He attributed the students’ exemplary performance to the courses they have taken, and the time spent with him during the meetings after school. “It was a good first impression, so I hope it continues,” Bryan added.

Surprisingly, the firefighting program has not cost the school or club members any money. The online courses are free, and even the necessary firefighting equipment was donated by several organizations. In particular, the Mystery Ranch, a pack manufacturer in Bozeman, Montana, generously donated 11 wildland firefighter packs. The packs were actually used in the film, “Only the Brave,” a 2017 film based on the true story of a group of elite firefighters who risk everything to protect a town from a historic wildfire. Other manufacturers who have donated gear are Coaxsher in Seattle, Washington, who donated four fire-resistant shirts; and Bullard in Lexington, Kentucky, who donated 21 wildland firefighter helmets.

“Many have been extremely excited and supportive of this new program. I’ve been able to get all of these things donated,” Bryan explained. The list of supporters includes fire personnel with the Cherokee National Forest, the Tennessee Division of Forestry, the Virginia Department of Forestry, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Natural Tunnel State Park and the Tennessee Valley Authority, who donated gloves and eye protection.

When asked how he became interested in firefighting, Bryan said that there was a forest fire near his home when he was young.

“I have always been intrigued by that, seeing those guys getting out there in the woods getting dirty, using fire to fight fire,” he said. Bryan, who has taught at Dobyns-Bennett for 14 years, said he became a teacher because he loves helping young people. “But I had always enjoyed the woods and being outside, so I kind of picked up firefighting as a hobby,” he added.

What began as a hobby for Bryan has turned out to be a very beneficial program for students who want to pursue forestry or firefighting as a career. According to Bryan, no other high school in the country offers this unique opportunity. “It is not something that is naturally on students’ radar. I don’t think there are any others in the entire country who have a high school wildland firefighter program,” he said.

It is Kerns’ unique skills and qualifications as a certified wildland firefighter that makes the program possible.

“Mr. Kerns is a blessing and we really appreciate him,” said Gage.

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