Which Factor Is Present In Most Wildland Firefighting Fatalities and Burnovers?

Last month, we discussed using LCES (Lookouts, Communication, Escape routes and Safety zones) combined with making a fire behavior prediction to determine whether firefighters could commit to protect structures in the wildland urban interface (WUI...


Last month, we discussed using LCES (Lookouts, Communication, Escape routes and Safety zones) combined with making a fire behavior prediction to determine whether firefighters could commit to protect structures in the wildland urban interface (WUI). This month, we will explore the complex task of...


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Last month, we discussed using LCES (Lookouts, Communication, Escape routes and Safety zones) combined with making a fire behavior prediction to determine whether firefighters could commit to protect structures in the wildland urban interface (WUI). This month, we will explore the complex task of predicting fire behavior.

This column is intended for the firefighter who occasionally responds to wildland fires with the focus of structure protection in the WUI. The term wildland fire is used here to describe grass/brush, forest/timber or a vegetation fire.

Most professional wildland firefighters would agree that the primary factor causing firefighter burnover fatalities would be a lack of knowledge or the inability to estimate fire behavior. Or, stated another way, it is the failure to "base all actions on current and expected behavior of the fire," referring to the third of the "Ten Standard Firefighting Orders" for wildland firefighters.

Fire behavior is defined by National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) as, "The manner in which a fire reacts to the influences of fuel, weather and topography." Therefore, wildland fire behavior is dependent upon the influences of fuel bed, weather and topography. Each of the three major components has additional sub-components:

  • Fuel bed — Fuel moisture, fuel loading and fuel type
  • Weather — Wind, humidity and temperature
  • Topography — Slope, aspect and terrain features

Each component is a study in itself. The behavior of fire can be driven by wind, fuel or topography, individually or any combination of the three.

Dr. Bret Butler is a research engineer at Missoula Fire Laboratory Center in Montana. His primary responsibility is the research of fire behavior during an out-of-control wildland fire. In the "2008 Fireline Safety Refresher" training video, Dr. Butler states that "predicting fire behavior is a most complex task…when a fire is burning in an open environment involving the three major elements of a wildfire." Yet, firefighters around the globe respond to WUI fires with little or no training in the behavior of fire, and are frequently assigned to protect structures in the path of a wind-driven wildland fire. Lack of experience, training and/or knowledge puts firefighters at a tremendous disadvantage when predicting fire behavior.

Five federal agencies have wildland firefighting responsibilities. They are the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Park Service (NPS), Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). A primary responsibility of these agencies is to protect our natural resources, such as forested or chaparral/brush-covered lands. Along with some state fire agencies such as CalFire and a few local governments, wildland fire training is a priority, with the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) fire behavior classes being mandatory. Fire behavior classes are S-190 — Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior (an eight-hour course), S-290 — Intermediate Wildland Fire Behavior (three days), S-390 — Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior Calculations (five days) and S-590 — Advanced Fire Behavior Interpretation (three weeks). These agencies not only have the training, but generally have a tremendous amount of wildland firefighting experience. I will refer to their personnel as professional wildland firefighters.

Professional wildland firefighters will primarily use a combination of the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders, the NWCG's Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG) Risk Management Process (see facing page), and the IRPG's "Look Up, Down and Around" section. The IRPG is a pocket-size guide that should be part of every wildland firefighter's personal protective equipment (PPE) and accessible for easy and frequent reference.

Let us review each of these rules or guidelines of engagement as listed in the IRPG:

Fire Behavior

1. Keep informed about weather conditions and forecasts.

2. Know what your fire is doing at all times.

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