DUGWAY PROVING GROUND — Wildland firefighters from seven states are learning how to use bulldozers to fight wildfires in Utah’s West Desert.
The Bureau of Land Management is hosting the 2019 BLM Dozer Academy at Dugway Proving Ground. Firefighters use the heavy equipment to move flammable vegetation out of the way of a fire, leaving only dirt behind to stop the flames’ spread.
This week, the bulldozer trainees are creating a fire break around the perimeter of the Army installation.
“Four dozers, we’ve got students from seven states. In three days, they’ve helped us do what would take four years to do on the ground,” said Patrick Carnahan, assistant chief of the Dugway Fire Department.
Carnahan said they helped organize the first bulldozer training event last year. With students coming in from several states, he is proud of the impact they’re making.
“I’ve always wanted to be an operator, ever since I started fire and when I was a little kid,” said Ricky Lee, a wildland firefighter from Boise, Idaho. “You just gotta get the handle of the sticks. Once you do that, you get the hang of it.”
The trainees dug dirt paths along a fence bordering BLM land Thursday morning.
“It’s priceless! This is what keeps fire on the installation or helps keep fire off the installation,” Carnahan said.
While the firefighters are learning new skills, workers at Dugway are looking for ways to mitigate the wildfire risk.
Dugway’s restoration specialist Kalon Throop said much of the area is covered by cheatgrass, which creates a bigger fire hazard than the native plants.
“Cheatgrass takes what used to be a 50-75 year fire interval in the sagebrush and juniper that we used to have here and turns it into a three or five-year interval,” Throop said. “Instead of burning twice in a hundred years, it’ll burn twice a decade.”
They work to replace the cheatgrass with fire-resistant plants like forage kochia, which hold more moisture.
“It also creates a lot of bare ground around it, which our native plants used to do,” Throop said. “It makes it so that it moves much less quickly, much slower than it would otherwise, which gives our firefighters a better chance at controlling that fire.”
The bulldozer training will continue through the end of the week. After that, the trainees will take their new skills back to fire crews far from Dugway.