Smoke and ash swirled into the air Thursday on state Department of Natural Resources land north of Hamilton, obscuring the sky.

Chain saws buzzed and radios crackled as firefighters dug lines and watched for spot fires.

Thursday’s fire was lit intentionally for training purposes, but the threat of wildfires — and the need for on-the-ground practice — is real.

“With the drought conditions ... we’re definitely drier than usual leading into the summer and it’s important we have all our ducks in a row and are prepared before any real fires start,” Natural Resources Fire Management forester David Way said.

Way served as incident command for the training, passing down orders to about 60 firefighters, most of whom work for Natural Resources while some are with the Washington Conservation Corps.

He said he was glad to be able to light a real fire for training purposes this year, after several years without the resources to do so.

“The last few years we’ve done annual fire training without fire, and overwhelmingly we get feedback from participants that, ‘Man, we need live fire,’ because it’s hard to imagine the intensity,” he said. “This year we made it a priority to get back to it.”

During the training, a helicopter dumped several hundred gallons of water from the Skagit River onto a portion of the fire. Elsewhere, hand crews dug lines into the soil in an effort to contain the flames.

Way said the training fulfilled requirements for wildfire suppression and prescribed burn classes.

The Natural Resources team involved in the training serves the northwest region, which includes Whatcom, Skagit, Snohomish, Island and San Juan counties.

Due to Natural Resource’s limited number of firefighters in the region, the agency has forged partnerships with other programs such as Washington Conservation Corps, a state-level AmeriCorps program focused on training for environmental, and sometimes emergency response, careers.

During Thursday’s training, a German exchange student with Skagit Valley College and interning with Natural Resources got a taste of what it’s like to join a hand crew.

“I’m really, really lucky to come to these fires ... we don’t have this in our country,” 23-year-old Maximilian Mäder said while wearing yellow fire resistant gear and carrying a shovel. “In Germany we don’t have wildfires — yet.”

Natural Resources spokesman Jim Cahill said of the wildfires in Washington state, about 85% are caused by humans through campfires, backyard brush fires and improper mufflers on recreation vehicles.

That’s a concern as Western Washington becomes increasingly dry and more at risk of fires.

“We’re seeing larger fires on the west side and more and more fires on the west side,” Cahill said.

— Reporter Kimberly Cauvel: 360-416-2199, kcauvel@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kimberly_SVH, Facebook.com/bykimberlycauvel

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