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Putting faces with the names you’ve seen in class
Double Feature Kathy Komatz National Park Service trainer, instructional designer, EdTech grad
Jerry Foster EdTech’s venerable adviser recalls
Lessons Learned in the Middle of Nowhere
Published by the College of Education, Department of Educational Technology
A hell of a week in paradise
t was October and the season, as they say, was winding down for Kathy Komatz and other wildland firefighters, park rangers, and search-and-rescue specialists in central California’s Yosemite National Park. Dispatch called with a report of a fire, and Komatz and other helitack crewmembers raced to their helicopter to recon the fire and possibly insert some initial attack fire fighters. Once they found it, Komatz and the others could see
Photos COVER—EdTech grad Kathy Komatz, a training specialist for the National Park Service, chats with a colleague during a training exercise on Yosemite National Park’s Fairview Dome, elevation 9723. Photo: Dave Pope. ABOVE—On an otherwise dismal day, a splash of sunlight brightens the face of El Capitan as a National Park Service helicopter delivers emergency supplies to distressed climbers caught by a sudden rain and snow storm, which killed two other rock climbers that day. Photo: Mike Shore.
that it was a weird fire. It burned upward from a long horizontal line, right above a trail. Two fire fighters were dropped on the down-hill side of the fire while Komatz and the rest of the crew flew higher up the mountain to search for hikers who might be in danger. The fire fighters on the ground radioed the helicopter with a strange story. Two hikers had told them that a man dressed in black was setting fires along the trail and that he had threatened them. It wasn’t long before Komatz and the others in the helicopter had spotted the fire starter farther up the trail—and he was starting another fire. Komatz couldn’t believe it. Starting fires in a national park was the craziest thing she’d ever seen. As the helicopter circled over-head, Komatz saw the man pull something black out of his pocket. From bad to worse “Gun,” she shouted into her microphone and the pilot instantly peeled off, away from the man. Then it got much worse.
As they flew out of pistol range, they saw hikers walking toward the fire and the man with the gun. They landed near the hikers, explained the danger, and flew them to safety. A day or two later, the armed arsonist was located again—not far from where they’d first seen him. He had stepped into the burned grass and killed himself. Then it began to rain a cold, miserable rain in Yosemite Valley. Snow plastered the mountains. The helitack crew instantly changed its focus from fire to rock climbers caught by the sudden change of weather on the face of El Capitan. Every rocky crevasse becomes a creek and a water fall when it rains in Yosemite. And in this autumn rain, two Japanese climbers were caught and killed by rushing water in a crevasse.
“After a butt-load of work, we’d sit around the last of the fire—dirty, sweaty, and tired—and tell stories.” Komatz spent much of her National Park Service career in wildland fire management, frequently ferrying to fires by helicopter and being dropped onto inaccessible ridges to suppress lightning-caused fires before they got big and uncontrollable. And sometimes, when fires burned in thickly forested locations where helicopters could not land, she and other helitack crew members rappelled from a hovering helicopter. “After a butt-load of work, we’d sit around the last of the fire—dirty, sweaty, and tired— and tell stories. Then we’d go to sleep and the last thing we’d remember was the stars. We’d wake up to the smell of smoldering wood and breathe that fresh mountain air—it makes you glad to be alive! “When the helicopter returned for us, we’d Right—Komatz (on the left) practices rappelling with an NPS park medic at Yosemite’s Crane Flat Helibase. She now works as an NPS training specialist and instructional designer at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, where she uses her EdTech skills in all aspects of her job. Photo: National Park Service
“With effective use of technology, we have a means and I believe a responsibility to share our experiences.” belt into our seats and lift-off over tree tops and fly over the greatest views in the world. And we got paid for this!” In an earlier life Only days after finishing a degree in geology, Komatz went to Yosemite for a summer job. The summer lasted 24 years. Before joining the National Park Service, she worked as a mule packer and guide in the Yosemite backcountry and taught skiing and snowboarding in the winters. She now works as a National Park Service trainer at the massive National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, where she employs the EdTech philosophy that training should be taken to
students (in her case, fire fighters) rather than taking students to the training. So, in this era of decreasing budgets, she provides quality online instruction for NPS firefighters. There is a “hurdle of isolation” in natural resource agencies, where lessons learned tend to stay local. “But with effective use of technology, we have a means and I believe a responsibility to share our experiences,” she says. Boise State’s graduate program in educational technology inspired her and gave her the confidence and tools to make a difference, she says, and she does “not intend on wasting that opportunity.” Komatz is not the only EdTech alumnus working at the National Interagency Fire Center. Jon “Woody” Kessler is employed by the Bureau of Land Management at NIFC in Boise. Jerry Foster is a recruiter and academic adviser in Boise State University’s online graduate programs in educational technology.
Woody Kessler uses EdTech skills in fire logistics Former EdTech student Woody school classrooms to large construcKessler is a Bureau of Land Managetion trailers or hot and dusty military ment Supervisory Training Specialist tents. Remote command posts must for the National Wildfire Coordinatbe self-sufficient and require generaing Group and supervises a team of tors and satellite technology to prosix instructional designer/project vide internet connectivity. leaders at Boise’s National InterWhen not supporting large fires, agency Fire Center. he analyzes and revises the BLM’s The former fifth-grade teacher fire-training curriculum, which is applies his EdTech skills to support well in excess of 100 individual incident management teams ascourses divided into job categories, signed to large wildland fires all over such as Operations (for on-thethe nation. He and other members of ground firefighters), Logistics (for incident management teams track planning, moving, and tracking huthe work hours, financial records, man, mechanical, and support reWOODY KESSLER and location of every person and sources, such as hand tools and conevery mechanical resource—such as tractors), Finance Administration, trucks, bulldozers, helicopters, and airplanes— Command (leadership), Fire Behavior and contracted services, such as mobile kitchens (considering fuel, weather, and terrain), and and portable toilets. He says it is not uncommon Dispatch. to keep track of a thousand or more deployed He and his team develop and revise courses resources. for online or hybrid delivery to improve learnTo do that, Kessler’s team deploys and supports ing effectiveness and financial efficiencies rea small local area network including workstalated to time and travel. tions, servers, and resource tracking software. His team is now exploring mobile technoloThe work locations can vary from borrowed gies, including developing specialized apps.
Lessons Learned In the Middle of Nowhere
Above: Eastern Oregon’s Owyhee River Canyon. It was on a cliff overlooking this river that three Bureau of Land Management firefighters discovered a long-abandoned
ad a chance to visit with some old friends the other day.
No special occasion, just a nagging memory that needed to be stirred. We talked about the summer of ‘67, when all of us except Bob Bement were college students; he was a high school teacher, but that summer we were all Bureau of Land Management fire fighters—trained but untried and about to be humbled in the eastern Oregon desert. We talked about that year’s
ranch house, and one of them discovered something about himself. Photo: Bureau of Land Management
big fire, the one that nearly roasted Bement and his boys. That’s the fire that dehydrated my eyes so bad they wouldn’t close at night. The ash in my eyes felt like gravel and hurt so bad I wanted to cry, but I had no tears, only pain. Think of something else, I told myself, so my mind replayed images of the fire and other events that summer in the hot high-desert hills. Someone pulled us off the fire line after
We talked about that year’s big fire, the one that nearly roasted Bement and his boys.
midnight and told us where to find the fire command center. It was easy to find. Big generators and light banks lit the place like a football stadium. Men unloaded portable toilets from a flatbed truck and others were setting-up a mobile kitchen. We grabbed some Crations and paper sleeping bags from a supply truck. As
we scarfed down our food, more pumpers and several bus loads of hot-shot crews pulled into camp. The pumper crews were local college guys like us (there were no girls on fire crews in those days), and the hotshots were mostly migrant laborers who would make a lot more money tomorrow than they would hoeing onions or sugar beets. Bob, Mike, and I found a bare spot, rolled out the paper sleeping bags, and crashed. We were too tired to notice the rocks and lumps of bunch grass underneath us. Flat-on-my-back had never felt so good—except my eyes were killing me. Think of something else, I reminded myself. The afternoon blast furnace was now just a warm breath. No moon washed the hills with lime light; only stars and low flames on a distant ridge illuminated the cave-black night. My eyes still wouldn’t close. Neither would my mind. Every day that summer had been an offroad episode of Route 66 Bob, Mike, and I were the first crew stationed at the new Crowley Guard Station at Barren Valley, which was analogous to Siberia in its isolation, and the three of us had one thing in common—mercenary dreams of fighting range fires every week and making piles of money for college. We were given only three assignments and then officialdom forgot us. We were required to make radio contact morning and night, get to know the access routes to every ridge and canyon, and be ready to fight fires. So every day that summer had been an off-road episode of Route 66: three sweaty guys in a BLM pickup, kicking up dust on every dotted line on the map, some of them just tracks through the grass and sage brush. One day of trail exploration took us to the crest of a low rise. A good crop of spring grass sloped down to the weathered bones
Above—The Crowley boys became proud of their Siberia-like isolation and freedom from bosses. They designed and paid for a shirt-sleeve patch (above), thought to be the only guard station crew in the Vale BLM District to have one at the time. Photo: J. Foster Below—Typical eastern Oregon high desert in early spring. When grasses are full grown, rangeland like this can become volatile. Fires are suppressed because they destroy habitat needed for wildlife and cattle. Photo: Bureau of Land Management
of what had once been a beautiful little ranch on My eyes ached; think of something else, I the edge of a cliff. reminded myself. A one-room shack squatted on a lava slab I thought of the rattlesnakes we’d found only a few steps from the sheer rock walls of the under the out-house floor, dozens of them tanOwyhee River canyon. An afternoon breeze gengled into a slowly writhing ball. I actually fortly banged the screen door. Long abandoned, got the pain in my eyes for a moment and the house’s boards were gray and deeply laughed at how close those fangs had been grained. Rusted wire held sagging corral poles every time we had dangled our bare butts and in place, and very little held the leaning outeverything else through the outhouse hole. house in place. Bob and Mike tipped the privy and Mike and Bob walked off to look at the canpropped it up with a shovel and I started rayon. Groping for a sense of the people who had built this place, I imagined a young rancher and his wife who once watched incredible sunrises over the canyon. The woman visited my mind often after that, particularly when Bob, Mike, and I—unable to sleep because of the heat— sweltered on our bunks late at night, pondering the metaphoric mystery of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit lyrics on a far-off radio station. This woman had wanted to be a cowboy's sweetheart; what else would bring her way out here? Surely she had loved the perfume of rain-freshened sagebrush and juniper. Had she ridden with her cowboy when he checked the cattle on the high range? And on those days when she stayed home, had they ridden together in the evenings, so they could talk and she could listen to the cattle lowing and watch the shadows growing as the sun went down? Had she noticed all of those stars that filled my aching eyes? Had she heard the nightly coyote chorus and the wind strumming sagebrush guitars? I checked my watch. It was almost 2 a.m. and the camp was quiet now, even the coyotes had The author imagined the sunrises over the canyon and the long-gone gone to bed. people who had lived here. Photo: Bureau of Land Management
Today’s wildland firefighters are better out-fitted than their 1960s-era predecessors, as evidenced by the goggles and neck protection. But firefighting is still hot, dangerous, dirty, and rewarding work. Photo: Bureau of Land Management
ing them out while the other guys hacked at them with shovels. We killed all we could catch but most of them raced into the safety of the grass and sagebrush outside the fence. Afterward, we learned that we had actually lured the snakes to us by planting and watering a lawn, which we thought would help cool the bunk house, but it also cooled the snakes. We learned to wear boots on every trip to the out-house and, just to be safe, we banged the side of the crapper with a shovel and listened for rattling under the floor before risking unimaginable, and unmentionable, injury by sitting on the toilet hole. This week had started out like all the others—an electrical storm churned overhead—but experience had taught us not to get excited because they seemed to form over Barren Valley but deliver their fire-starting lightning outside of our territory. This time, the radio squawked but we couldn’t understand it. Electricity in the air added so much static that we couldn’t hear the message, so we piled into the pickup and raced to the top of a ridge to get better reception. When we were able to get through, the dispatcher directed us to a fire about 20 miles north, roughly halfway
between Barren Valley and the guard station at Juntura, which was 45 miles north of us. Bob wheelied that old Dodge pickup around and raced down the ridge road, if you could call it that. By the time we got to the guard station and picked up our pumper truck, we’d lost 30 or 40 minutes and feared a Juntura crew would get there ahead of us, so Bob floor-boarded our pumper, a World War II airport bomb carrier— forcing 20 miles-an-hour out of it—until it died. Bob and Mike figured the carburetor had vapor-locked, so we poured canteen water on it. The carb hissed and steamed and so did we, and then off we’d go as fast as the old crate would take us. It went a few miles and died again. We went through this routine several times. We could see smoke boiling up long before we arrived. While we were still several miles out, Bob Bement of the guard station at Juntura raced southward, toward us, following the directions of Dave Hawk in a spotter plane. “Bob, pull off where the ridge comes down to the road and follow that draw up to the top,” Hawk said. We could hear their chatter on the radio, which aggravated us to no end because the Juntura guys had responded to lots of fires
this summer and this was our first and they were beating us to it. What we couldn’t hear was Bob Mauer, who sat with Bement in the cab of Juntura’s new pumper truck, the newest and best in the Vale BLM District. “Don’t listen to Hawk,” Mauer said. “He’s taking us right into a hot spot.” Bement was new to fighting rangeland fires, but he and Hawk were teachers at Vale High School and he trusted his friend’s advice. Mauer, a college student, had a year or two of fire experience and that experience was making him uncomfortable. His instinct told him to stay off that ridge. As we drove around the nose of a long ridge, thick smoke screened the sun, making it blood red and psychedelically large. Just before Bement reached the top of the
ridge, Hawk flew off to scope-out another fire. “Be careful, Bob,” he said over the radio. “It looks it could be hot up there.” Smoke boiled up from the slope on the other side of the ridge line. Wildland fires generate so much heat they create their own weather. An imbalance of heat in the canyon created a strong up-draft, feeding the fire with oxygen like a blast furnace. Bement suddenly faced the firestorm On the back of Bement’s pumper, Tom Phillips belted himself to the railing to keep from being bounced off. He hung on, well out of reach of the wildly swinging canteens tied to the side railing. When the fire reached the ridge top, Bement suddenly faced the fire storm that Mauer had feared—a wall of flame three times as high as
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his pumper truck. They must have felt that they were looking into the mouth of hell. And it was coming fast. Mauer jumped out of the cab to help Phillips with the hoses. The situation looked like it couldn’t get worse, but it did. Bement started turning the truck around. They knew they couldn’t fight this fire alone, but they didn’t know they couldn’t escape—until the tires lodged between two boulders and the engine died. And wouldn’t start. The fire was sucking oxygen out of the air to feed the vortex. The engine wouldn’t start and the pump engine would not run fast enough to build pressure. Heat blistered Phillips’ ears as he struggled to unlatch his belt from the railing. Bement was still cranking on the starter when flames slapped at him through the passenger-side window. He jumped and told everybody to run. A tsunami of flame A tsunami of flame and super-heated gases rushed toward them, showering them with sparks, igniting the grass at their feet and in front of them. Bement slapped away embers burning his neck and hair as he and the others dodged and jumped the flames in front of them like halfbacks juking tacklers. Bement and Mauer hurdled a barbed wire fence near the bottom of the ridge. It’s a wonder what adrenaline can do for human
performance. But Phillips had stumbled on a rock, somersaulted in the air, and landed on his feet— without breaking stride. But he didn’t have time to jump, and ran right into the fence. That’s the story they told us when we arrived and I visualized Phillips bouncing off that fence like a pro wrestler thrown against the ropes. They had just reached the bottom when our pumper brakes ground to a stop. Mike asked where their pumper was. ‘We had to run for it.’ Bement looked sick. “Up there,” he said. “Burned up,” someone added. “Burned up?” “The engine died and we couldn’t get it started and the fire was moving fast so we had to run for it,” they told us. I thought they were exaggerating. Then we saw it, too. Giant flames swooshed along the sage and dry-grass ridgeline, pushing super-heated gasses in front of it. A juniper tree forty or fifty yards in front of the fire burst into flame like a big match. It wasn’t hard to imagine what the Juntura pumper looked like now. Flames advanced down the ridge toward us, slower now and only four-to-six feet high because the wind had eased, and fires don’t burn
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as fast downhill. It spread along the road in both directions. Bement used our radio to call for back-up, and then Bob eased our pumper down the road while Mike and I walked beside it, dousing sagebrush torches with water to keep sparks and heat from igniting grass on the other side of the road. Mike and I sprayed each other occasionally because the fire was hellishly hot, but weren’t backing off. I don’t know when sleep eventually came but when I awoke, my eyes were glued shut with mud made of ash and eye fluid, but at least they didn’t ache any longer. The morning brought relief for Bement, too. The fire had swept past his new pumper so fast that it wasn’t damaged much, just initiated. The right front tire had burned up and the fender above it needed repainting. Every time we have a bad fire year here in the West, I remember the three of us, hot, dirty, and happy, and me pulling the muddy scab out of my eyes before I could open them. I now realize how lucky we were that officialdom trusted us enough to let us work in far-off
Barren Valley without typical levels of supervision and allowed us to grow up together that summer . I have thought many times about that nice little cattle outfit far out in the hills where the land was cheap and the grass was good and life was an adventure. Age and reflection have taught me that the adventure was mine because, like reading a good book, I added my own interests to the master narrative and made the story my own. For starters, the little ranch house on the edge of the canyon was probably not a ranch but a line shack where cowboys spent the night while checking cattle on the range. And the woman was almost certainly the dream of a 19-year-old boy who had no girl of his own to think about. Most of all, I learned to appreciate grassy hills spotted with sagebrush and grazing cattle. And when the summer wind breathes the smoke of range fires into my valley of farms and small towns, I almost hallucinate on the smell of burning grass and sagebrush and the memory of three sweat-and-dust-encrusted guys in a BLM pickup.
Upper Midwest students & alumni
Let’s get together for supper! I’ll be in Minneapolis this month for the National Charter School Association conference. Let’s plan on getting together to talk about you and the EdTech program.
s i l o p a e n n i ! M 0 2 n i Please contact me in advance & u o at 208-426-1966 or at 9 y 1 e firstname.lastname@example.org . e S n June o Bring a friend who’s interested in our EdTech master’s program and I’ll buy dinner for both of you.
PARDON OUR PRIDE But it isn't every day that a colleague wins a Fulbright award! r u o of e rc wn u o o s r u e Th e—o e prid ry Ric r Ke
“I’m so thrilled right now, I can hardly think straight.”
EdTech Department Chair Kerry Rice has been selected for a Fulbright award to Poland. She leaves in September to help develop internet based curriculum at Nicolaus Copernicus University. She will also teach host faculty how to teach online.
partnerships.” EdTech is not only Boise State’s largest graduate program, but is ”one of the leading online graduate programs in the United States and has prepared more K-12 online teachers than any other program.”
With students all over the world, Rice said, “The EdTech program at Boise State is perfectly suited to advance global associations and
College of Education Associate Dean Ross Vaughn and Associate Chair Chareen Snelson will direct the department in Rice’s absence.