NWCG Approves Changes in Wildland Tactics

Changes that I proposed in my September 2009 column in Firehouse® Magazine have been adopted by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG), an organization that represents the five federal firefighting agencies, in addition to state and local fire representatives. The changes will occur first in the Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG), scheduled to be released early this year. The changes involve the descriptive terms of threatened structures in a wildland/urban interface (WUI) fire and reorganization of structure size-up considerations.

As shared in the September column, it is my contention that the current categories are vague and lack descriptive terms that indicate a course of action, especially for fire officers or firefighters who occasionally respond to — or perhaps are responding for the first time to — a wildland fire with structures threatened. A wind-driven urban interface fire is one of the most challenging fire assignments an officer can be exposed to. That will require time-compressed, critical decisions that will include life threat to citizens and firefighters by dynamic fire behavior that will be influenced by wind, fuel and terrain.

The concept is this: anywhere in the country, a fire officer or firefighter will see or hear the categories and understand the tactic. Said another way; the category indicates a course of action. A brief description of the four new categories follows (see my September column for further details of each category):

  • Defensible; prep and hold — Determining factor: Safety zone present for firefighters and apparatus
  • Defensible; stand-alone without staffing — Determining factor: Safety zone present, structure requires little or no attention
  • Prep and leave — Determining factor: No safety zone for firefighters or apparatus
  • Rescue drive-by — Determining factor: No safety zone for firefighters or apparatus

Two of the four new descriptive terms let the fire officer understand that some structures are not defensible. The concept that they have the right and duty to say "no" are counter-intuitive to fire officers. Other than hazardous materials or terrorist incidents, firefighters respond daily to our customers' calls for help and handle the situations in a rapid, professional manner. Saying no to an order or a request to protect structures on a given street must be based on criteria that determine it is not safe to do so, such as no safety zone for apparatus or firefighters. Another example may be a structure that is mid-slope with heavy fuel below with no safety zone or usable escape route to a safety zone.

Prep and leave/rescue drive-by have not been taught in the past, yet some experienced firefighters have performed these functions without a category. An example of prep and leave would be a structure that is non-defendable due to no safety zone for firefighters or their apparatus. However, in the officers' view, there is a reasonable expectation that prepping the structure (prep) by performing light mitigation and or applying a retardant such as compressed air foam or a gel will provide firefighters with a delaying action of structure ignition. Following prepping, the fire company must exit to the closest safety zone. When it is safe to re-enter the area, firefighters may follow the fire in and save property if possible. The concept of prep and leave is provided that adequate time is available to perform the prepping prior to the firefront arrival.

The best example I can share of a rescue drive-by is an incident that occurred on the "Witch Fire" in 2007 in the City of San Diego, CA. The San Diego City Fire Department (SDFD) asked me to present an eight-hour structure protection class, including a four-hour staff ride tour of the wildland interface area where 400-plus homes had recently burned on the Witch Fire. While conducting the staff ride, a civilian approached the group of 25 members of the SDFD. He asked to speak to the firefighters, captains and chief officers. I had just spoken with the fire group about the extreme unsafe position where we were located. I referred to this piece of ground as a "mine field" or "kill zone" because the homes were in a draw leading to a saddle with five homes, all mid-slope, as was the roadway.

The homeowner pointed to a burned structure in the process of being rebuilt and stated "thank you to the firefighter who at 1 A.M. rang our front doorbell and pounded on our bedroom window, screaming, 'Get out, fire! Get out, fire!' We looked out our bedroom window to see a San Diego City firefighter running back to his engine and disappeared down the road in the thick smoke. My wife, two daughters and I jumped out of bed and into one of our cars in the garage, still in our nightclothes. As we backed out to the street, the fire ignited the back of our home as we drove away. We lost every material possession we owned."

He continued, "The firefighter had every reason to believe we had already evacuated as all our lights were off and both cars were in the garage." The homeowner also said when they went to bed at 10 P.M., he thought (and so did the fire department) that the fire would not reach his area until daylight. But a new fire occurred due to another downed power line and the fire arrived about six hours before predicted. By this time, the homeowner was in tears thanking the unknown San Diego City firefighters for saving his family's lives. I firmly believe he was absolutely correct. This is what rescue drive-by is all about. If time allows, make sure that civilians are safely evacuated. Normally, evacuation is a law enforcement function, but in the early stages of a wind-driven wildland/urban interface fire, there will not be enough officers to do this most important function in a timely manner.

The changes in the IRPG will require updates in other wildland firefighting texts such as S-215 Fire Operations in the Wildland Urban Interface (I am currently assisting another working group updating the S-215 course) and the Fire Line Handbook. I want to thank our working group led by Jim Cook, Larry Sutton, USFS, and Chad Fisher NPS. Jim guided these changes through NWCG.

The above changes and others in the IRPG will be discussed in detail during a presentation at Firehouse World in San Diego, CA (scheduled to take place on March 3 from 8:30 to 11:30 A.M. in Room 2). Joining me will be Chief Brian Crandell and Captain John Culbertson of the Central Valley Fire District in Montana. In addition to being officers of Central Valley, both have extensive experience as volunteer fire officers. Also joining us is Captain Gary Harris, a 20-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, who is safety/training officer, Region III.

JP HARRIS is 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 firing operations as part of the Los Angeles County Fire Department Prescription Burn Program. Harris also has taught numerous wildland firefighting classes to career and volunteer firefighters, and he created the five-volume "Wildland Video Series." If you have any questions or comments, please e-mail jpharris1@sbcglobal.net

  • Defensible; prep and hold • Needing protection, but savable
  • Defensible; Stand-alone without staffing • Needing little or no attention for now
  • Prep and leave! • Indefensible
NEW • Rescue drive-by