The wildland fire season is officially upon us. The Western states are experiencing above average fire activity. Forests, watershed and homes are already being lost. Massive mutual aid has been deployed and armies of firefighters have been pressed into service. What happens when the effects of a few years of drought appear in your region and your "trusty" state and federal resources are deployed westward to support these campaign fires? You've got it! The system looks to you to provide a "first response" or at least a "structure protection" mission until other resources on the move can get to you.
For those of you that don't routinely fight wildland fires, I'm going to give you a few tips and tricks that might help you survive. They may also help you look less like a fish out of water and more like part of the solution, as well. Obviously, if you have full wildland PPE, wear it and use the right tools for the job. If you don't, you might want to put together a wildland bag or pack and keep it on the rig when it gets hot and dry in your district.
Rule #1. "Structural firefighting gear doesn't cut it."
Leave the SCBA, the ? length coat and the rubber boots in the cab. The key to doing this job safely and effectively can be boiled down to one word: FOOTWARE.
A pair of lace-up boots that extend above the ankle are your best friend when you're walking around in the brush, weeds, trees or in the interface. Even if you are preparing a structure for protection, the heavy bunker pants and boots are going to wear you out before you finish part of the job at your first structure. If you have "day boots" and they're the zip-up type, those are probably fine for the type of work you'll be doing.
Let's talk about pants. 100% cotton, nomex or blue jeans are the first choice for working in the wildland. Polyester, bunker pants and shorts are not on the approved list. A pair of nomex wildland trousers are the standard we're shooting for and they're pretty inexpensive from you're state's prison industries authority.
A lightweight, brush jacket, denim jacket or military field jacket made of 100% cotton or nomex is again the standard. Those heavy structural turnouts are not recommended. A long sleeve t-shirt worn underneath also provides additional protection for the arms and chest.
The 19-lb leather helmet or the 15-lb composite will be better off staying on the engine. A 10 dollar lightweight hard hat or a wildland helmet with goggles is much better protection for the type of work you're going to confront. Finally, leather or structural firefighting gloves are allowed.
To recap Rule #1: Wildland PPE should:
Now that we have you looking the part, you should also be much more comfortable. This change in PPE will improve firefighter safety from a number of other angles, as well. Let's go to rule number two and see what I mean:
Rule #2. "If you can't ride there to a structure fire, you can't ride there on a wildland incident."
How many times have you seen the video footage of structural firefighters assigned to a wildland incident and they're in full structural gear, riding on the running boards, sitting on top of the hosebeds or standing on the front bumper of the apparatus holding a charged line and spraying water on the fire. We have a couple of problems here.
First, there have been many incidents of fire apparatus driving through smoke in an off-road environment and the apparatus rolling over, striking an object or ejecting the firefighters to their death. Often times fire will ignite unburned brush and vegetation under the apparatus and will burn over the truck and crew. Firefighters in the wrong protective clothing are tired and worn-out firefighters. These are the guys that "force" officers and drivers to make allowances for the fatigue and compound the problem with an apparatus related incident or accident.
If you are going to use a "pump and roll" or mobile pumping evolution, the best method is to put the firefighters on the ground in front of the apparatus with a charged line (minimum of 1.5") off a front discharge. The firefighter should be 15'-20' ahead of the apparatus.
The firefighter sets a slow and steady pace for the fire attack by their walking speed. This fact alone prevents most of the potential injuries. If an area needs more water, the firefighters stops and extinguishes the fire. The rig continues forward only after the firefighter is happy with the progress of the attack. If at anytime the driver operator can't see the firefighter, the rig stops. If the firefighter notices a ground hazard (power line, boulder, hole, etc), the firefighter stops the forward progress and points out the hazard to the engineer. This technique should be used by experienced firefighters on the flank or the side of a fire not at the head! The firefighter should be in the proper wildland PPE and footware.
If you are not going to use the pump and roll option, try to resist the temptation to drive the apparatus into the brush or under the canopy of tree cover. You may be bringing the most expensive exposure to the fire! What we would rather see is the apparatus positioned in a safe location at an "anchor point". The anchor point is a location that is supported by no unburned fuels in all directions including above, underneath and around the rig. We do not want any hazardous unburned fuels (brush, weeds, grass, trees) that could ignite and threaten the continuous water supply or the pump and the operator. If we secure these items, firefighter safety on the hoseline is improved.
Some good anchor points are: adjacent to riverbeds, roadways, gravel areas and other improvements.
So, to recap rule #2:
The final rule for today is Rule #3. "A little water (in the right place) goes a long way!"
A wildland firefighter can put out a lot of fire with a backpack pump, a garden hose reduced from a booster line or a 1" tee off a reduced 1.5" discharge. If all companies conserve water, there will be more to go around and more firefighters/fire companies can be involved in the coordinated fire attack. It makes good sense to protect structures, attack the flanks and stop the head of the fire at a pre-determined natural break or improvement.
The main point: The ladder pipe should be left in the trough and the deck gun should not be charged. The "big fire-big water" analogy may not be appropriate for most wildland fire problems. Most of these incidents occur in areas with limited water supply. The wasting of tank water through a monitor or large handline is probably not the best choice.
The experienced fireground commander will size-up the problem, recognize limitations in equipment and develop a fire attack strategy. Utilizing the available water supply, personnel and equipment in the most effective manner. You should always be looking for opportunities to allow the wind, fuel, topography and natural improvements to dictate where and when to stop the forward progress of a wildland fire.
Rule #3 translated:
Next time we'll get to the important stuff like how to trade that nasty bagged baloney sandwich from fire camp for some peanut butter crackers and a grape soda.