By Kent Gray

Triplicate staff writer

Inmates from Klamath's Alder Camp got a workout yesterday as they trained to battle fires near Panther Flat in the Smith River National Recreation Area.

Learning to use safety gear, cutting fire breaks and feverishly hiking up and down hills were all part of the training, according to Steve Hubbard, division chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

andquot;They have to hike approximately four miles over rough terrain,andquot; said Hubbard. andquot;The pace is set properly so as not to push them too hard but at the same time not allow them enough time to lollygag.andquot;

The annual fire-preparedness exercise is known locally as the Panther Exercise because of the proximity to Panther Flat and in observance of the Panther Fire that swept through the area.

Hubbard said there were five crews with approximately 17 people on each crew.

The group was trained in four basic exercises, Hubbard said. There is a andquot;Tool up,andquot; where the firefighters will learn to use the latest firefighting tools, endurance hiking, andquot;line construction,andquot; where the men learn specifics in creating fire breaks, and safety gear deployment exercises.

Among the safety gear is a fire-resistant shelter that individuals can use should they find themselves stranded in the middle of a blaze.

andquot;It's a last-ditch device for life safety when all other things have failed,andquot; said Hubbard. andquot;They need to be able to demonstrate their ability to deploy this shelter - and it should be the only time they ever have to pull this out.andquot;

Based on an increased rainfall this year over last year, Chip Collins, the prescribed fire specialist with the Redwood National and State Parks, said the fire danger this year should be close to average.

andquot;At this point, this part of the state is seeing an average fire season, or close to 100 percent of average,andquot; said Collins.

Hubbard said the unique part of this exercise is that the men are able to practice these drills within a living forest and not have to battle regulations on top of it.

andquot;We are really thankful for the support from the United States Forest Service out of Gasquet,andquot; Hubbard said. andquot;Normally you would have to confront a whole lot of restrictions because of all the protected areas. It's great the way they have provided this site and are helping us with it.andquot;