Basic Wildland Fire Safety For Structural Firefighters

During the past year, I have received a number of requests from structural firefighters to write a column about basic wildland fire safety. Last year was an unusually tragic and deadly one for some structural firefighters that operated at wildland and wildland/urban interface (W/UI) fires. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 21 structural firefighters became line-of-duty death (LODD) statistics at these types of fires. Many others received injuries that were minor to very serious.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
Venomous snakes are a hazard at wildland fires in many areas of the country. Here, a rattlesnake has its fangs hooked onto the bottom of my right pant leg.

The LODDs resulted from a variety of causes, i.e., burnover, smoke inhalation, heart attacks, electrocution, motor vehicle accidents and, in one case, drowning. The following are but a few of the basic tenets of wildland fire safety.

The most important consideration during any fire incident is always life safety, first!

10 Standard Fire Orders

  1. Fight the fire aggressively, but provide for safety FIRST.
  2. Initiate all actions based on current and anticipated fire behavior.
  3. Recognize current weather conditions and get weather forecasts.
  4. Ensure that instructions are issued and clearly understood by everyone.
  5. Obtain current information on the fire's status.
  6. Remain in communication with your personnel, your supervisor/incident commander (IC) and other companies.
  7. Determine safety zone areas and establish escape routes.
  8. Establish lookouts in dangerous situations.
  9. Retain control at all times.
  10. Stay alert, keep calm, think clearly and act decisively.

18 Situations That Shout "Watch Out!"

  1. The fire is not sized up or scouted out.
  2. You are in an area not familiar to you or your crew and not seen in daylight.
  3. Safety zones and escape routes have not been established or identified.
  4. You are not familiar with the weather and factors influencing it.
  5. You are not informed of the tactics, strategy and hazards of incident.
  6. The instructions and assignments are not clearly understood.
  7. There are no communications with the firefighters or the officer/IC.
  8. Constructing/cutting a fireline/fuel break without a safe anchor point.
  9. Constructing/cutting a fireline/fuel break downhill with fire burning below crew.
  10. Attempting a frontal fire attack.
  11. There are unburned fuels between you/crew and the fire.
  12. You cannot see the main body of fire and do not know where it is heading.
  13. Operating on a hillside where rolling materials can start a fire below you.
  14. The weather is getting drier and hotter.
  15. The winds are changing direction and/or increasing in speed.
  16. There are frequent spot fires igniting.
  17. The terrain and the vegetation can make escape routes and safety zones difficult to get to.
  18. You feel like taking a nap near the fireline.

What Is "L.A.C.E.S."?

Lookouts - Putting an experienced and trusted person where the fire can be seen is a must.

Awareness - Be alert to what is happening around you. Look up, down and around.

Communications - Are you able to communicate with the lookout(s), your crew and the IC?

Escape routes/Safety zones - Have at least two routes and zones been established and does everyone know where they are?

Factors To Consider

Apparatus operations. While enroute to a fire incident: know the location of the fire; drive with care and caution considering the conditions of the road and traffic; and drive as though EVERYONE'S life depended on your safe driving skills. At the scene: use extreme caution if heavy smoke is obscuring vision; watch for other apparatus; be alert for people and animals making a hasty evacuation in your direction; watch for escape routes and remember them; when parking apparatus, keep away from vegetation, if possible; back into a driveway or dead-end road in case you may need to make a quick exit; move apparatus slowly and be sure no one is dangerously too close to its wheels; and if there is no water supply, always leave about a quarter of the booster tank full for the crew's protection. If you are the apparatus operator and you feel tired and groggy, let a more alert and qualified firefighter drive the apparatus back from the scene.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
Do not drive under, park under or operate under electric power lines.

Electrocution. A LODD or injury from electricity is not common, but it does occur from time to time. It can be a HIDDEN and insidious factor. Energized wires can be hidden in vegetation after falling from poles or from power-line poles falling over. This can occur a long distance away and firefighters may be unaware of this potentially deadly and hidden danger.

An energized power line may be lying on a long metallic fence a considerable distance away, creating a dangerous and deadly situation should firefighters come in contact with it. Do NOT touch any fences at or near a fire scene. Use extreme caution if walking in high grass or brush. A live power line might be hidden in there. Do not drive under, park under or operate under power lines. And remember that some smoke can become a conductor of electricity.

Venomous insects and reptiles. Use extreme caution in habitats of venomous snakes. The gila monster or beaded lizard is the only venomous lizard living in the southwestern deserts of the U.S. Fire ants, spiders, scorpions, bees, hornets and wasps can all bite and sting. Seek medical aid if you've had an up-close, personal and painful encounter with any of these critters. Especially seek IMMEDIATE aid if you are allergically sensitive as anaphylactic shock can occur rapidly, creating a potentially life-threatening medical emergency. If you become aware of a nest of one of these insects or reptiles, flag or tape off the area and notify your crew and the IC.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
Burned snags (dead tree limbs) and trees can and do fall without warning. This command vehicle was hit by a falling tree and the firefighter-driver narrowly escaped serious injury or possible death.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
Clear communications are vital to safe operations. This chief officer is using a portable radio to communicate with a helicopter approaching from the upper right over the tree line.

Poisonous plants. The common poisonous plants encountered are poison ivy, oak and sumac. Those people most commonly affected are allergic to the oils in these plants. When these plants burn, however, they give off a toxic smoke that when breathed in can be extremely hazardous to those not normally allergic. Become familiar with what these plants look like.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
Being physically fit is essential for the firefighter's health and safety.

Hearing protection. Hearing is very precious and is easily damaged by sirens, air horns, loud motors and loud radios. When in the vicinity of any of these high-decibel-making devices, wear hearing protection.

Snags and burned trees. Snags, or dead tree limbs, are often called "widow makers" for justifiable reasons. They can and do kill firefighters. Trees, whether alive or dead, that have been burning at their bases or trunks over a long period can weaken. They eventually fall over without much sound or warning.

I saw a large snag fall onto the trunk of a chief officer's car. The weight of the falling snag lifted up the front of the car with a very surprised driver sitting in it. The car's trunk was crushed.

Hazardous areas where there are snags should be identified and taped off, and the location conveyed to the crew and IC. And it is good safety advice to keep your helmet on your head when operating in not only burning areas of forests, but in areas that WERE burned.

Your physical condition. As we are well aware, structural firefighting is physically demanding work. Wildland firefighting is even more so. You should have very good to excellent aerobic capacity, physical strength and stamina to operate safely and effectively at wildland fires. People with known cardiovascular problems must not directly participate in fire-suppression operations. They can endanger not only themselves, but other firefighters as well. Know your physical limitations and don't exceed them, ever. Get a physical exam. Then, if you are OK to do so, work out and build up.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
Park fire apparatus in a safe area with no vegetation under or nearby, if possible. Know escape routes and safety zones, and back the apparatus into driveways or dead-end roads to make a quick exit.

Rehab. Even the fittest and toughest of firefighters need to rest and rehab. Watch out for fatigue and heat stress. Heat stress can lead to heat stroke, which can become a true medical emergency. Do not consume soft drinks while at rehab. They contain high amounts of sugar and caffeine - neither is what your body wants or needs while under stress. Drink lots of water, pure-fruit juices and high-energy drinks that replenish the body's nutrients. Keep your body hydrated by drinking lots of water BEFORE, DURING and AFTER fire-suppression operations.

Proper personal protective clothing (PPE). The wearing of the proper PPE while at wildland fires is essential and fundamental to safe operations. How many times do we see structural firefighters wearing heavy turnouts, bunker gear and rubber boots while working at wildland fires? Too many times. Talk about developing heat stress, heat stroke, blisters and muscle strains!

If you and your fire service operate frequently at wildland fires, then the proper wildland PPE should be provided and worn. This includes: fire-retardant station uniforms; all-cotton underwear; wool or cotton socks; wildland turnout jackets and overpants; wildland helmets; eye protection; leather gloves; high-top leather work boots; some form of filter respiratory protection (not SCBA); fire shelters, with the training to use them; and head shrouds. That's the basic ensemble.

5 Common Denominators At LODD Fires

  1. Light fuels - i.e., grasses, weeds and brush can be deceptively dangerous.
  2. Incidents occurred during small fires or in isolated areas of large fires.
  3. Fires that appeared as "no big deal" or under control that suddenly flared up.
  4. Fires occurring in gullies, steep slopes/hills and chimneys (not in houses), making fast, unexpected runs uphill.
  5. During fires at which air operations were used. The turbulence created by the rotor wash from a helicopter's blades or from a low-flying air tanker can fan a small fire into a large one and engulf firefighters.

Size-up & Awareness

Whether one is responding to a structural fire or a wildland fire, size-up is very important and should be the first thing we do when a fire response is initiated.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
One factor of size-up, whether enroute or at a fire scene, is the observed amounts of fire and the color, density and height of the smoke column.

Some important aspects of wildland fire size-up are: life safety; time of the day/night; fire history, if any, in the area responding to; weather conditions (humidity, drought, and wind speed and direction); what the fire looks like (smoke amounts and color, flames and/or embers visible); structures in the area; water sources; access and egress; other apparatus responding; and whether there are any hazardous materials or power lines in the area.

Being aware of and practicing these basic safety fundamentals and other important factors are essential to safe and effective wildland fire suppression operations. Remember: Grass, brush and trees will always grow back. A structure can be rebuilt. You and your fire crew are irreplaceable and safety first is no accident.

Here is a short list of references that can provide in depth information about wildland firefighting and safety:

  • The Firefighter's Handbook On Wildland Firefighting by William C. Teie, Deer Valley Press, 5125 Deer Valley Road, Rescue (honestly), CA 95672. Website:
  • Fighting Fire In The Wildland/ Urban Interface by Phillip L. Queen, Fire Publications Inc., 9072 Artesia Blvd., Bellflower, CA 90706. Website:
  • Campbell Wildland Fire Training Specialist, P.O. Box 1506, Ojai, CA 93024. Telephone: 805-646-7026. Website:
  • National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), 3833 S. Development Drive, Boise, ID 83075. Telephone: 208-387-5512. Website:
  • Wildland Firefighter's Page:
  • National Fire Academy, Emmitsburg, MD 21727. Telephone: 800-238-3358. Website: and click on "training courses" where there are two courses for structural firefighters in the wildland/urban interface.

You can also obtain wildland fire safety training and information from state fire agencies or from the federal fire agencies in your state.

Robert M. Winston, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a district fire chief in the Boston Fire Department with extensive experience and training in wildland and SWI protection. Questions and comments may be sent to him via e-mail at