Eastern Oregon University > Academics > Wildland firefighters benefit from research

Wildland firefighters benefit from research

A technical approach to an age old trade

Health and Human Performance Professor Kyle Pfaffenbach presents an EOU Colloquium on a multi-year project between exercise science majors and the Grande Ronde Rappellers at 4 p.m. on April 8 via Zoom

The connection between Pfaffenbach and the Grande Ronde Rapellers developed when Rappel Foreman Kyle Johnson reached out for some professional insight for his wildfire crew. Pfaffenbach recognized this as an opportunity for students and firefighters to mutually benefit. 

“[Johnson] got in touch with me a couple years ago and said he was observing a disconnect between the standard fitness tests for firefighters and the actual physical demands of the job,” Pfaffenbach said. “I knew our department and our students could help through advanced exercise testing and providing insights into training and nutrition for the crew.”

This group of wildland firefighters rappel from helicopters into wildfires with 110 pounds of gear, fight it from the inside out, and then hike out to a camp or trucks. The hikes could be 2 to 20 miles long. These individuals work for 24 to 36 hours at a time and can go up to 72 hours in the field unsupported.

Over the past 2 or 3 years, exercise science students have designed personalized data for each firefighter in Johnson’s crew. Students helped design workout plans to optimize strength, revised meal boxes to incorporate protein-rich meals that could be prepared in the field, and held seasonal testing sessions to track the physical fitness of each firefighter. Students have presented this information at national conferences, used it as capstone projects, and gained hands-on research experience. 

Pfaffenbach said taking a high-performance approach to a professional job like wildland firefighting is unique. This type of approach is typically reserved for serious and elite athletes.   

“Despite the fact that there are a lot of wildland firefighters and that their work is extremely dangerous and physically demanding, the same kind of attention from a sports science standpoint has not been given to them compared, to say, military soldiers or high-performance athletes,” he said. “Our knowledge and resources here at EOU, coupled with the fact that La Grande has one of 12vrappel bases in the country, provides a very unique experience for both our students and the firefighters”.

Tune in via Zoom to Kyle Pfaffenbach’s colloquium at 4 p.m. on April 8. 

To learn more about upcoming colloquium, visit eou.edu/colloquium.  

By PR Intern Emily Andrews