05 July 2011

Wildland Firefighting for the Structural Firefighter Part I

Another re-post

It is not uncommon for a structural firefighter to make a grass fire once or twice a year, but what is supposed to happen when the situation becomes larger? Structural firefighters are faced with a challenge that does not occur that often, and are often ill prepared for. I will attempt to break down some basic wildland concepts so that you will be prepared for your next wildland fire.

There are several immediate differences between structural and wildland firefighters. Standing side by side, the type of protective equipment we use is heavier and more bulky, meant to protect us from high heat inside an enclosed space. If you have fought a wildland fire in structural gear, you know that it reduces your mobility and makes handling lines and doing work that much more difficult. Conversely, the protective equipment worn by wildland firefighters is light and made of lightweight, breathable, all natural materials such as cotton and leather. This is meant for mobility and protection as natural materials have a higher heat resistance than some synthetics. It allows for the wildland firefighter to fight fire on the move, being able to pack up and move quickly to redeploy elsewhere.

Our increased weight does not allow us to be deployed for an extended period of time. The wildland firefighter is equipped for work for days in the forest, carrying all the necessities of life with him in addition to firefighting equipment. Wildland firefighters often carry different tools. A pulaski axe, for example, is both and axe and an adze on a single head, used for both digging and chopping. Smaller hose sizes allow for the wildland firefighter to be able to operate a single line without help, decreasing fatigue.
So what does the structural firefighter need to know in order to safely and effectively handle wildland fires?

The answer is multifaceted.

The US Forest Service has the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders, which are a good basis to start on
  1. Keep informed on fire weather conditions and forecasts.
  2. Know what your fire is doing at all times.
  3. Base all actions on current and expected behavior of the fire.
  4. Identify escape routes and safety zones and make them known.
  5. Post lookouts when there is possible danger.
  6. Be alert. Keep calm. Think clearly. Act decisively.
  7. Maintain prompt communications with your forces, your supervisor, and adjoining forces.
  8. Give clear instructions and insure they are understood.
  9. Maintain control of your forces at all times.
  10. Fight fire aggressively, having provided for safety first.
They expanded on these later, creating the 18 Watchout Situations:
  1. Fire not scouted and sized up.
  2. In country not seen in daylight.
  3. Safety zones and escape routes not identified.
  4. Unfamiliar with weather and local factors influencing fire behavior.
  5. Uninformed on strategy, tactics, and hazards.
  6. Instructions and assignments not clear.
  7. No communication link with crewmembers/supervisors.
  8. Constructing line without safe anchor point.
  9. Building fireline downhill with fire below.
  10. Attempting frontal assault on fire.
  11. Unburned fuel between you and the fire.
  12. Cannot see main fire, not in contact with anyone who can.
  13. On a hillside where rolling material can ignite fuel below.
  14. Weather is getting hotter and drier.
  15. Wind increases and/or changes direction.
  16. Getting frequent spot fires across line.
  17. Terrain and fuels make escape to safety zones difficult.
  18. Taking a nap near the fire line.
So how can structural firefighters safely handle wildland fires, even though we are placed at a disadvantage?
Remember what we know about fire already and how to attack it, we will most often be fighting the fire from behind and directly extinguishing burning fuels themselves in a "direct attack." Because of the potential for fire spread, it is not recommended that a direct attack be made form in front of the fire (see #10 of the 18 warning signs) because you could become overwhelmed by the fire front.
However there will be occasions where the fire has grown outside of ability to control it directly. While this is rare, it is an option that needs to be considered. An "indirect attack" involves the cutting of fire breaks and lighting a backfire, or creation of spot fires that are then extinguished in the fire's path. Either method allows the fire to burn itself out by consuming all the fuels between the fire break and main fire. In the urban interface this is a last option as it involves equipment we do not readily have on hand such as bulldozers and if a Forest Service or wildland resource management (many states have these in state parks) crew is available they should be contacted for assistance, since this tactic requires specialists as the potential for the backfire to spread is great.
Now that he have discussed a little strategy, in the next installment we will discuss what structural firefighters can do to control the spread of a wildland fire using the equipment they already have available.

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