Throughout the summer in Bonners Ferry you might run into men wearing green cargo pants and shirts with the initials KVFPD on them. You may assume they are Forest Service employees, but you would be wrong. They are in fact the fine employees of Idaho Department of Lands Fire Crew. Every summer full time firefighters are hired and trained to protect Bonners Ferry Wildlands or what the State of Idaho refers to as Kootenai Valley Forest Protective District (KVFPD).
The bulk of KVFPD’s district includes the Kootenai River Valley, Highway 95 and Highway 2 corridors which covers much of the privately-owned land in the county. Part of the mission for the firefighters is what’s called the “Initial Attack,” which simply means quickly responding to smoke reports and mutual aid requests from Boundary County volunteer fire departments. In order to facilitate timely and effective response to smoke and fire reports, KVFPD coordinates its response with the regional Idaho Department of Lands (IDL) dispatch center in Coeur d’Alene and maintains two Type-5 wildland firefighting engines. Each of these engines carrys 500 gallons of water and the tools required for Initial Attack. These Type-5s as they’re referred to, are the big red Ford 550 duallys you see around town enroute to a fire or smoke report. A few of the tools critical to wildland firefighting include a portable transfer pump, hand tools such as Combi and Pulaski, chain saws and hundreds of feet of fire hose.
KVFPD staffs what’s referred to as “engine crews.” KVFPD takes pride in pushing their firefighters to their highest physical potential and emphasizes skills-based training on the order of “don’t train until you get it right, train until you can’t get it wrong.” Surely this is due to the extensive experience of the KVFPD leadership. Crew Foreman Dan Stefano has been with KV nearly a decade. Assistant Fire Warden Nate Rogers, a native to North Idaho and former crew foreman of the North Idaho Helitack crew. The North Idaho Helitack crew was originally designed to initial attack small remote fires, which demanded a high level of physical and professional know how in order to operate effectively in remote situations where help and additional resources may be hours away. Heading up the leadership team is Fire Warden Ken Homik, who spent part of his career as a “hotshot” sawyer, which refers to a Type-1 hand crew and experts in initial attack. These “special forces” of wildland firefighting often work weeks on end, 16-hour days cutting line with hand tools and chainsaws around large and complex fires both locally and across the country. Under the current leadership, several KV firefighters have gone on to hotshot and helitackcrews. Additional services offered by KV leadership include teaching courses to volunteer fire departments and providing EMS and Search and Rescue with basic wildland safety information to enable these professionals to execute their jobs in a safe and effective way around wildfires.
New firefighters are hired on as a Firefighter 2 and over the years can work their way up to a Firefighter 1. Part of the basic training for all wildland firefighters is a series of courses in firefighting strategy, tactics and fire behavior in relation to weather and geography. These courses are offered in addition to other scenario and skills-based training as a week-long course called Guard School. After this training, new firefighters receive their “red card,” which is a wallet-sized card that verifies their course completion and qualifications of national standards.
Upon returning to KV, firefighters are ready and qualified to fight fires across the district and nation. The training regiment for KV firefighters begins before guard school and continues after their return. These skills include running the fire engine pump, deploying and laying hose lines around fires, and hand tool techniques to maximize output and maintain stamina throughout long days of cutting line. The last few years, KV has been conducting a two-day scenario here in Boundary County in coordination with the Sandpoint district to simulate an overnight fire response. This scenario combines all the job skills required and puts two crews together to initial attack and manage the fire.
This year KV experienced a light fire season, a welcome change for landowners in Boundary County. There were 13 fires, from Boundary Creek to Naples and east to the state line. The season started off strong with a warm spring that spurred two fires the weekend of Mother's Day. The first fire took place on about a tenth of an acre above District 5 road looking over the river valley. North Bench Volunteer Fire Department were the first responders to the fire and they were able to swiftly get their Wildland engines up and set to establishing a line around the fire. KV soon arrived and assisted with the direct attack. The next day, Mother’s Day, KV returned to the soaked ashes of the fire to check for any smoke or hot spots and mop up. They found a few smoldering hot spots and soaked them up with mop up wands. The crew hadn’t been at work for more than an hour before a page came out that a fire had been reported a few miles up Westside Road. This fire was nearly an acre and burning underground in duff along the bottom of the river valley. Together with North Bench Volunteer Fire Department and Forest Service, KV coordinated direct attack and finished mop up by 8pm. The next week there were two more wildland fires and it seemed the dry spring would segue into a dry summer and busy fire season, but we all know how that turned out. Due to the quiet season, KV’s fire crew was able to put time in at some of the other tasks often completed by the timber crews at IDL. Such tasks included spraying noxious weeds, clearing roads of fallen trees and harvesting pine cones at several seed orchards for later cultivation by IDL scientists. Those seedlings are then used to replant Idaho Forests.
Wildland firefighting for KV doesn’t always mean fighting huge fires and saving babies, but it does mean being ready every day during the season. Always on call and always ready to serve, for the crew at KV it’s a kind of brotherhood as they push each other during training so when they are in the thick of it they know they each have the skills to get each others back.