Rules, Tactics or Myths?


The rules of engagement in wildland firefighting are effective and written in blood. They include the “Fire Orders,” “18 Watch-Outs” and “Down Hill Line Construction” check list. Strategy is either a direct or an indirect attack, using tactics of “Anchor/Flank/Pinch,” “One Foot in the Burn,” structure protection/defense or simple or progressive hoselays. However, many misleading tactics in the wildland fire service are accepted as rules and taken literally. Let’s look at tactics and procedures and determine whether they are rules, tactics or myths.

For structure protection, the standard hoselay is two 1½-inch hoselines around the structure – Most structures that ignite in the wildland/urban interface (WUI) start when an ember lands on a host, such as the stuff collected around homes, ornamental vegetation or a collection of needles. Very few structure ignitions are caused by direct flame impingement, so if a structure ignition is the result of an ember smaller than dime, are two attack lines required? Absolutely not. Use best practices, from garden hoses to a single 1½-inch attack line. Some situations will require two 1½-inch lines, but when more than one structure is involved, a 2½-inch hoseline or monitors will be required to stop the spread of fire. In addition, if either a three- or four-firefighter crew is defending a structure, laying two attack lines will necessitate one firefighter working alone, obviously not a desired tactic.

Conclusion: Laying two attack lines around a structure is a myth.

If a roof is more than one-quarter involved with fire, move on – If another structure is exposed and closer than 20 feet, ignition will occur and keep spreading until intervention is taken by firefighters. Therefore, knocking down the roof fire before moving on is a must. In fact, many WUI fires with large losses of structures were the result of embers from other burning structures. The tactic is to knock down the fire and then move on to other threatened structures. It will be necessary to return to the knockdown structures, as they will usually begin to burn again.

Conclusion: If a roof is more than one-quarter involved with fire, move on is a myth.

• “The Structural Situations That Shout ‘Watch Out’ ” – This list was prepared by Don Johnson of Rural/Metro Corp. and presented at Region Three Engine Operators Workshop in 1991. His original presentation listed 15 “Watch-Out” situations; the Fire Line Handbook (FLHB) lists 10 of the original 15; and the S-215 WUI Student Workbook list nine of the original 15.

The original “Fire Orders” and “Watch Outs” were derived from fatal fires and were implemented to assist the wildland firefighter in making a fire behavior prediction and safety consideration prior to committing to attacking the fire. The “Wildland Urban Watch Outs” do not measure up to the “18 Watch Outs,” as they were not derived from fatal fires. The original “Watch Outs” are viewed as safety warnings (“yellow lights”) or the opposite of one of the “Fire Orders” (“red lights”) – all important items, each and every one of them. However, if you examine the “Wildland Urban Watch Outs,” they are nothing more than size-up or fire-behavior components and already exist in the Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG) and FLHB (see examples below). A culture of disengagement by firefighters labeling defendable structures as non-defensible structures has arisen.

1. Poor access and narrow one-way roads (size-up component).

2. Bridge load limits (size-up).

3. Wooden construction and wood shake roof (size-up).

4. Power lines, propane tanks, hazmat threats (size-up).

5. Inadequate water supply (size-up).

6. Natural fuels 30 feet or closer (non-defendable structure, most agencies require 100 feet of clearance around a structure).

7. Structures in chimneys, box canyons, narrow canyons or on slopes 30% or greater (size-up).

8. Extreme fire behavior (fire behavior component).

9. Strong winds (both size-up and fire behavior component).

10. Evacuation of public with potential for panic (a consideration on any major incident).

In analyzing each of “The Structural Situations That Shout ‘Watch Out,’ ” they are either a size-up component or an input of making a fire behavior prediction.

Conclusion: “The Structural Situations That Shout ‘Watch Out,’ ” taken as a whole, is a myth.

• The fire shelter is a last-resort piece of personal protective equipment – This was discussed extensively in my column in the September 2010 issue.

Conclusion: The fire shelter as a last-resort piece of equipment is a myth.

Stay mobile, don’t hook-up to a hydrant and don’t lay a supply line – This is probably the most misunderstood of all one-liners. It is mentioned in almost every text and article, yet there is a time to stay mobile and likewise there is a time to lay a supply line. An example of when to stay mobile is an assignment at a WUI fire and where the housing area to which you are assigned is determined to be a safe area, but the home that may be directly impacted is not predictable. Obviously, stay mobile and commit when and where needed, using best hoselay practices.

An assignment that may require committing and perhaps laying a short supply line would be a structure with a safety zone present where the engine will not be leaving. If it is determined that additional water may be needed, lay the supply line.

Some pointers I’ve mentioned in previous columns: Never bet your crew or your apparatus on water staying in the hoseline. If you are sure you will need more water than you bring to the fight, consider other options. There is additional safety in water. In the future I will write a detailed article on this subject.

Conclusion: Stay mobile, don’t hook-up or don’t lay a supply line is a myth.

The purpose of writing this column is to inform firefighters that what is written as gospel may be just a suggestion. Wildland fire behavior can change rapidly and tactics must be adjusted accordingly.

• • •

At my Firehouse World 2011 presentation in San Diego, CA, “Station, Esperanza and Calabasas Burnovers: Common Denominators,” I’m scheduled to be joined by Captain John Culbertson, Ph.D., and Division Chief Brian Crandell of the Central Valley Fire District in Montana to provide a three-hour review of critical clues that lead to underestimated and unexpected fire behavior. In addition, Los Angeles County Fire’s Rob Morales, Camp 16 crew supervisor (engineer rank), will share his story from the burnover at Camp 16 so that firefighters may learn from this tragedy. The class takes place on March 1 from 8:30 to 11:30 A.M.

JP HARRIS is a battalion chief (ret.) with the Los Angeles County, CA, Fire Department, where he served for 38 years. For 10 years, he trained crew supervisors and superintendents in prescription burning and firing operations as part of the Los Angeles County Fire Department Prescription Burn Program. Harris has served as a camp-, battalion- and division-level instructor for Los Angeles County Fire, developing and instructing wildland, structure and survival techniques for cooperating agencies throughout the western United States. He also has taught numerous wildland firefighting classes to career and volunteer firefighters and created the five-volume “Wildland Video Series.” He can be contacted at