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National Wildland Firefighter Apprentice Program holds first academy outside California

ALABAMA — Apprentices from the first Wildland Firefighter Apprentice Program academy located outside California, are heading back home after spending a memorable month in Alabama’s backwoods. Solon Dixon Forestry Education Center provided the perfect backdrop for wildland apprentices, who felt more at home under starry nights and rustling pines.

Until now the majority of academies have been held at the Wildland Fire Training and Conference Center located at the former McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento, Calif. Since WFAP has traditionally been held in California it has been branded as a Region 5 Forest Service program. In an effort to realign with its mission, the WFAP piloted a satellite academy in the Southeast.

A typical day begins by waking up to high humidity unfamiliar to the apprentices coming from arid climates. They file into the chow line and are greeted by local cooks who serve up a tasty spread. The Dixon Center directors even help prepare special dinners of barbecue steaks, seafood, grits and fried okra.

After breakfast, crew bosses lead their apprentices in physical training. Taking advantage of the many trail systems across the 5,300+ acres of the Dixon Center property, the crews ran by springs, ponds and under canopies of long leaf pines--then it was off to the classroom.

The classroom portion doesn’t always entail lectures and PowerPoints under the glare of fluorescent lights.  “At the Dixon Center, students have the unique opportunity to take what they have learned from their classroom instruction and in the same day, put that ‘theory into practice’ within our longleaf pine forests,” Joel Martin, Dixon Center director.

The Southeast has a robust prescribed fire program and is well known for the Prescribed Fire Training Center in Tallahassee, Florida. This education has traditionally been reserved for the home unit due to the urban limitations of the WFAP’s home site in Sacramento. These fire management practices instill important skills for future fire managers to utilize outside the scope of fire.

This newfound flexibility and commitment to hands on training under the National Wildland Firefighter Apprenticeship Program provides a strong foundation for apprentices to become better, more well-rounded future fire managers. The forty-eight apprentices from Foundational Academy 4 will have many experiences in their careers, but their time at Solon Dixon will not be forgotten. Foundational Academy 5 has started and a new group of apprentices are getting to experience the WFAP’s newfound Southern hospitality.

Foundational Academy 4 apprentices participated in a sandbox training scenario. Forest Service photo.

Apprentices complete the run portion of the PT test which consists of a 1.5-mile run, and maximum sit ups, pushups and pullups completed in 3 minutes. Forest Service photo.

WFAP apprentices practice their map reading and communication skills. Forest Service photo.

Apprentices learn how to use a leaf blower, a popular tool in the Southeast, for line construction. Forest Service photo.

Apprentices are briefed on the Blue Springs Fire. The mock fire tested the skills apprentices learned during the month long academy. Forest Service photo.

Foundational Academy 4 graduates and staff. This was the first Wildland Firefighter Apprenticeship Program academy held outside California. FA4 was held at Solon Dixon Forestry Education Center in Andalusia, Alabama. Forest Service photo.