Sheila Stogsdill

MIAMI After two weeks of battling California wildfires seven Northeast Oklahoma A&M College students returned home Thursday night, weary but with more knowledge than they could ever glean from a textbook.

"I'm tired and exhausted," said Tyler Burleson, 19, of Wyandotte. "But it feels really good to know that you are helping people."

Burleson was among students who traveled to Siskiyou County in northern California to help battle a blaze that destroyed more than 58,000 acres.

The students are members of the Certified Wildland Firefighting Coordinating Group.

The students were paid for their two weeks of on-the-job training and received an understanding of safety and how properly to use tools, said Mike Neal, an NEO forestry instructor.

Firefighting for credit

NEO is the only Oklahoma college or university that offers college credit to freshman and sophomores working to become certified firefighters, he said.

Each student is certified through the National Wild and Firefighting Coordinating Group, Neal said.

The college has also joined with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to allow students to participate in fighting local fires that occur on Indian-owned ground.

The students submitted their names to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs dispatch office in Hot Springs, Ark., for the opportunity to travel to California.

After being chosen, the group was bused to Fort Smith, Ark., flown to Oregon and bused again to northern California.

Those on the trip were Justin Shrum of Claremore; Zach Christie of Kansas, OK.; Eric Fonseca of Quapaw; Thomas Richardson of Fayetteville, Ark.; and Eric Eddy and Andrew Kirksey, both of Miami.

All received their firefighting certification through the college.

Alicia Bishop, formerly of Miami, and Jessica Koster, formerly of Baxter Springs, Kan., are NEO alumnae and firefighters stationed in California. They also assisted the students, school officials said.

Learning first-hand

The group was divided into two teams that were part of a 20-person line crew that battled a 100-acre fire during 16-hour workdays.

"We dug a 10-foot-wide barrier that keeps the fire from jumping," Burleson said.

A line crew is designated to put out small fires and embers that are still burning after the larger sections of the fire have been extinguished.

The barrier also keeps the wind from picking up embers and blowing them into unburned areas.

"We worked for two days, and then the fire blew up," Burleson said.

The fire has yet to be extinguished.

Burleson said the fire had cause one fatality a firefighter from another department.

The team was off for four days during an investigation, he said.

During those days, the team attended stress-related briefings.

The rest of the time, Burleson said, the team was on call.

"I learned a lot of leadership skills," he said. "I also learned first hand how a crew has to step up and about teamwork

California uses resources like helicopters and airplanes for water and chemical drops, he said.