Many of the firefighters who fought fires in North Carolina last year were trained at Warren Wilson College.
Retired ranger Dave Walker, a Warren Wilson College grad, trains dozens of people yearly for North Carolina Forest Service fire crews.
“For more than 50 years, students at Warren Wilson College have been working for the North Carolina Forest Service in fire control,” Walker said. “Many student firefighters have used this experience to secure a job.”
Last year, more than 88,000 acres of wildland burned in North Carolina. With the potential for property damage and an increased risk to life, local residents look to N.C. Forest Service crews to help combat the threat.
Walker, a 1980 WWC grad, remembers the first day he fought a forest fire.
“I was leaning up against a wall outside of Gladfelter Student Center at the college,” he said, “and I heard this loud siren. Suddenly, a county ranger pulled up and asked me if I wanted to help fight a fire. It sounded like a good idea to me, so I jumped in the truck and headed to Black Mountain.”
Walker’s experience that afternoon led him to a career in firefighting, but he was not the first Warren Wilson College student to take on the challenge. In fact, The Asheville Citizen-Times reported 40 students helped fight a fire in 1958 around the McKinney’s Gap area of McDowell County. Recently, the college’s forest manager, Shawn Swartz, and junior Melina Lozano battled a forest fire off Bee Tree Road.
Walker teaches the basic fire suppression courses through Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College. The two courses are required for all N.C. Forest Service personnel suppressing wildland fires. Walker wraps a safety class into the training to cover situation awareness, risk mitigation and hazard reduction. These courses are for entry-level personnel with no previous fire experience.
Once certified, trained Warren Wilson College students are considered to be on call for the N.C. Forest Service. Entry-level crew members earn about $11 per hour.
“Over the years I have seen many students develop into experienced, highly skilled firefighters,” Walker said. “Because of their enthusiasm, motivation and attitude, Warren Wilson students are popular because they work hard, are willing to learn and can handle the physical pressures of the job.”
Swannanoa Fire Department hosts the next round of classes, and a minimum number of participants is required. The S-190 class (Wildland Fire Behavior”) is Feb. 18-19 from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The S-130 (Firefigher Training) and L-180 (Human Factors on the Fireline) courses take place March 4-5 from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The class is open to current firefighters and Warren Wilson College students and alumni interested in working for the N.C. Forest Service.
To register for the class, contact Walker at firstname.lastname@example.org.