Lessons from Iraq Offer a Different Future For Southern California Wildland/Urban Interface Fires

Three California fire agencies have taken lessons from the mean streets by developing a new color-coding system. Bill Clayton and Mike Rohde discuss the system and its effects.


A string of Humvees and armored personnel carriers moves along an elevated road somewhere on the outskirts of a Baghdad neighborhood. The soldiers are U.S. Army Reserves, activated for a year of duty in Iraq. They are alert and tensed for any surprises that may come. They are new to Iraq, having...


To access the remainder of this piece of premium content, you must be registered with Firehouse. Already have an account? Login

Register in seconds by connecting with your preferred Social Network.

OR

Complete the registration form.

Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required
Required

A string of Humvees and armored personnel carriers moves along an elevated road somewhere on the outskirts of a Baghdad neighborhood. The soldiers are U.S. Army Reserves, activated for a year of duty in Iraq. They are alert and tensed for any surprises that may come. They are new to Iraq, having replaced regular Army units just a week ago. Sure, they received some outstanding training in preparation for their deployment, including a two-week stay at the Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin, CA. There they were exposed to whole simulated communities of insurgents and events as real as those they might face in the weeks ahead. But here tonight on this road, this is the real deal!

The training they received gave them a new awareness as to operational risks and provided them with new tools to alert them to lethal threats. They recognized that the narrowing road entering the community ahead created hiding places for snipers, that debris in the roadway may hide an improvised explosive device and that the picture of Saddam on that wall may well be a booby trap, waiting to explode when torn from the wall. But along with this training came good intelligence, created in part by soldiers who worked these same mean streets before them.

In the hands of the convoy’s commanding officer was a set of cards with text boxes shaded in red, yellow and green. One card was labeled with the name of the community in front of the convoy in large letters with a “yellow” color code indicating moderate overall risk when operating in this area.

But the card also offered much greater detail. In the same color coding in smaller boxes below the community’s name were details about the community’s political unrest, the use of explosives, the ethnic makeup of the community, the presence of insurgents and whether the community was supportive of U.S. policies. Each of these smaller boxes denoting the various details was coded red for high risk, yellow for moderate, and green for light risk. In a 15-second glance, the officer was well briefed on the risks that lie ahead.

Think of it. You are sent with an engine strike team over 100 miles to protect a mountain community you have never heard of before. The fire is large and out of control, and your division supervisor seems miles away by radio. Your firefighters are tired, dirty and hungry from moving from one threat to another all day long. The fire is moving rapidly against this unseen community and you and your engines are ordered to take up positions along a lonely dirt road in the middle of nowhere.

Then, a stroke of luck! A local agency firefighter arrives and hands you a set of pre-plan maps for the area. Included are cards similar to those used in Iraq, showing red, yellow and green colors depicting the risks of protecting the homes you have been assigned. In a glance, you are forewarned as to what risks you face.

Borrowed from the U.S. Army-National Training Center, through the assistance of Generals Scott Wallace and Joseph Fil and Dr. Jack Thorpe, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, three California fire agencies have taken lessons from the mean streets of Iraq. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection-San Diego Unit, the Orange County Fire Authority, and the City of San Diego Fire-Rescue Department are already using the color-coding processes in their assessment of structural protection risks in the wildland-urban interface (W/UI). These tools are being integrated into pre-fire planning for higher risk communities. Firefighters deployed into these areas in the future may consult these tools for immediate information on the risks associated with their structure protection assignments. The tool is being used both for areas where large housing tracts abut wildlands and for rural mountain enclaves.

In the pre-fire plans, the association of a neighborhood with a particular color code has a distinct translation. These definitions are:

This content continues onto the next page...