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.


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...


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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.

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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.


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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.

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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.