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.