WILLMAR — When the Willmar Fire Explorers returned home after a very successful day at the Fire Explorer's Challenge at the Minnesota State Fair on Aug. 23, they were greeted by a fire department truck escort including sirens and flashing lights. At the fire station family and friends were waiting to greet and congratulate them.

There was a reason for the celebration. The Willmar Fire Explorers, split into two teams, finished second and third overall out of 24 different teams competing in the challenge.

"It was really rewarding to see us blow it out of the park," said Willmar firefighter and explorer adviser Nick Krohn.

Willmar One, the team which finished second, was made up of veterans of the Explorer program, who have competed before. They knew early on during this year's challenge that they were going to have a good time.

"After the first event, knowing how well we did, I could see the excitement in our eyes," said explorer Logan McGillivray. "It worked out so well. You could tell all of us were proud."

The explorers on the third-place team, Willmar Two, were all new to the explorer program this year, so for them to place so high out of so many other teams, was a great accomplishment.

"We're beyond proud," said Willmar firefighter and explorer adviser Chad Robertson.

The Fire Explorer Challenge, which is part of the Governor's Fire Prevention Day at the state fair, tests fire explorers on a range of firefighting and rescue skills, from putting on gear to rescuing a victim from a fire and extricating an individual from a car wreck.

"It is what a firefighter would actually do," McGillivray said.

For instance, in the room search test, four explorers have to find and remove a dummy weighing around 125 pounds from a maze simulating the inside of a house. The explorers are wearing all the fire gear, breathing through the self-contained breathing apparatus and are unable to see clearly.

"In a real fire you go off of your senses," Willmar firefighter and explorer adviser Jason Scheffler said. "You can put your hand in front of your face and you can't see it."

To make the simulation even more real at the fair, a band was playing very loudly. This simulated how hard hearing each other can be in a real fire call.

"We made it through," explorer Michael Stark said. Willmar One tied for first in the event with a team from Alexandria.

Individually, Willmar explorers performed just as impressively. Josiah Swanson, an explorer veteran, set a new state fair record for individual gear donning, completing the task in just over 46 seconds. His explorer teammate, Issac Malone, finished in second place, only a few tenths of a second behind Swanson's time.

The Explorers begin training for the skills competition in the spring.

"By June the kids really want to nail down their skills," Scheffler said.

Over the past few years the Explorer program has undergone a renewal, changing everything from how it recruits to how it teaches and trains the explorers. That extra work has paid off.

"We trained harder," Malone said, adding the actual event at the competition felt easier than the practice they did at the Willmar Fire Station.

While the state fair competition is a highlight of the Fire Explorer curriculum, it is not the only thing the youth do in the program. They learn so much during their time with the fire department that they've pretty much taken the first round of training one needs to become a firefighter.

The program also teaches leadership skills and improves self-esteem, participants said, characteristics certainly on display at the state fair and in the regular training classes in Willmar.

"You're all a family. You don't want to see people not doing well," Malone said.

The Fire Explorers is a recruiting tool for not only the Willmar department, but other fire and law enforcement departments across the region. One former Explorer has already become a Willmar firefighter and Stark will soon be joining as well. He is currently completing the last steps needed to become a full-fledged firefighter, a dream he has had since before becoming an Explorer.

"I love it," Stark said.

Other former Explorers now serve on other fire departments or as law enforcement officers. The skills learned as an explorer can also help in a wide range of careers, from counseling to medical fields.

The advisers of the Explorers are very proud of all the group has achieved this year, both at the state fair and in the community. They hope even more youth choose to take part and be a part of such am inspirational group of teenagers and young adults.

"It is rewarding for us, to see them participate and excel, to have that excitement," Scheffler said.

"If they leave here with more confidence, then our job is done," Robertson said.