Instructor and Wildland Firefighter Teaches from Vast Experience

October 10, 2013 -- Between late April and July 8, Brian Henington, a CNM wildland firefighting instructor, was home four days. The rest of the time he was fighting fires, including one where he battled a blaze next to the 19 firefighters who later died in the Arizona Yarnell Hill Fire.
Instructor and Wildland Firefighter Teaches from Vast Experience

Jul 17, 2015

Fighting wildland fires is something he’s been doing for the past 18 years. “It’s perfect for me,” Henington said. “I teach at CNM during the fall and spring terms and fight fires during the summer, which is wildland fire season.”

Henington first started fighting forest fires at age 20 when he was a student at New Mexico Highlands University. He needed a job to help pay the rent and learned that the New Mexico State Forestry Division was hiring wildland fire fighters. The main requirement to get hired was to pass a rigorous physical fitness test. As a robust football player for the university, he passed the test on his first try and was fighting fires within two weeks.

“The coolest thing was responding to my first fire. It got my adrenalin flowing. I loved being outdoors,” he said.

He doesn’t know exactly how many fires he’s fought over the years, but it’s a lot. In 1996 alone, when he was stationed in Las Vegas, N.M., his three-man crew responded to 121 fires – more than most wildland firefighters ever fight in a whole career. He’s fought fires in New Mexico, West Texas, Arizona, Kansas, Montana, California, Wyoming and Mexico.

Besides having master’s degrees in business and public affairs, Henington speculates he has more than 2,000 hours in specialized training. He takes about 80 hours of training a

year to hone his firefighting skills.

Before coming to CNM, he worked in the New Mexico State Land Office and went to all serious wildland fires representing the State Land Commissioner. He also was employed by the State Forestry Office. One of his jobs there was to train inmates from the minimum security Inmate Work Camp in Los Lunas how to fight wildland fires. “The inmates made good firefighters,” he noted. Two of the inmates he trained eventually got Associate of Applied Science in Fire Science degrees from CNM.

Fighting forest fires is no easy task, Henington said. The firemen are driven to the edge of the fire by a transporter crew carrier. They hike for miles into the wilderness with chain saws and 45-pound backpacks filled with gear to build lines of protection between people and fires. They remove brush, trees and anything that might burn in the direction of homes and cities. His backpack, which is always in his truck ready to go, also contains enough personal items, such as clothes, to last two weeks.

His firefighting adventures have led him to places, some private lands, where he beholds the beauty of nature -- like bears, elk and deer in their habitat -- that many people never witness.

“And to think when I started college I wanted to be a U.S. Marshal like Tommy Lee Jones in the movie ‘The Fugitive,’ chasing after Harrison Ford. One summer job changed my life,” Henington said.

CNM’s Fire Sciences Program

Wildland firefighting has been a focus in the CNM Fire Science program since fall 2011, when it became the program’s second concentration. The first was structural firefighting. A third concentration, Emergency Medical Services, has recently been added. Frequently fighting fires – whether wildland or structural – go hand in hand with knowing about how to provide emergency medical services.

More than 560 students are enrolled in the Fire Science Program that can lead to an Associate of Applied Science in Fire Science degree, said Mike Kavanaugh, program chair. Many of the students are already firemen in the Albuquerque and Bernalillo County Fire Departments. CNM has an agreement with the two fire departments, granting the firemen 21 CNM credit hours and giving them the opportunity to get an associate degree. They are awarded automatic 21 credit hours because they attended their departments’ fire training academies – a type of credit for prior learning. They take the remaining 40 plus hours to earn their associate degree.

Kavanaugh, one of CNM’s Fire Science program’s earliest graduates, has worked at CNM for 15 years. He spent many years as a fireman on Kirtland Air Force Base where, besides structural fires, he fought fires on military aircraft.

He noted that because of the firemen’s hours – they generally work two days on and four days off with different schedules from week to week – a lot of students in the program take their classes online.

Some of the classes, like Occupational Safety, Introduction to Fire Science, and Facilities Inspections, are naturals to be taught online. Others, such as Fire Investigations, Fire Behavior and Combustion and Hazardous Materials are not. As an example, students take two face-to-face classes at the Albuquerque Academy taught by Albuquerque firemen. Also, in one of the advanced classes students go to the state fire academy in Socorro where they fight actual burning buildings.

The issue of odd work hours and difficulty of firemen attending classes caught the attention of a national organization, Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE), to which Kavanaugh belongs.

“At one of the meetings it was brought up that it was difficult for firemen to go to school,” Kavanaugh said. “It didn’t matter in 1969 when I entered the profession. Then it was very unusual for a fireman to have an associate degree, let alone a bachelor’s or doctorate. Now it’s a different story.”

FESHE made arrangements with seven universities around the country to provide bachelor’s degrees and a Ph.D. through distance learning.