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
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.