Wildland Fires - Be Prepared for Your Firestorm

Some key issues in an emerging problem

CarolinaFireJournal - By David Greene
By David Greene
07/05/2011 -
I currently work in a jurisdiction responsible for over 1,100 square miles and a population of just over 40,000 people. It is interesting to note that the entire population of this jurisdiction can be placed into just one or two buildings in mid-town Manhattan, New York City. This means the jurisdiction in which this author works probably has far more trees than people. If you couple this information with the fact that many use fire to manage their land on a regular basis, it means that Wildland Firefighting is a routine incident, and is probably the same for many of you. image

Established in 1927, the South Carolina Forestry Commission was originally empowered to protect specific tracts of land from the ravages of wildland fires. In 1945, the Forestry Commission’s responsibilities were extended into every county in South Carolina. At that time, the fire service in the majority of rural South Carolina was either non-existent or underdeveloped. As a result, the Forestry Commission would identify wildland fires, most often using triangulation by fire spotters in large towers, and would respond tractors to confine the fire. Due to a lack of urban sprawl, the spreading of urban communities into suburban and rural areas, a wildland fire very rarely involved a response from the local fire department. Flash forward 65 years and you will find that many individuals have actively sought to move away from urban areas and have established homes in suburban and rural areas. Many developers have cleared small roads into wooded areas and built subdivisions. Unlike their counterparts in California, developers here frequently design these subdivisions without defensible spaces which are often mandated by local ordinance out west. At the same time, the South Carolina Forestry Commission has experienced drastic financial cuts, which have dramatically affected their ability to provide service as in years past. All of these issues have combined to create the potential for a “firestorm” (for lack of a better word) in our communities.

Let’s consider first the weather. Wildland fires are predominantly driven by wind direction and speed. It is essential for long term incidents, to evaluate the presence of high or low pressure fronts that are approaching. In the Northern Hemisphere, high pressure fronts spin clockwise and low pressure fronts spin counter-clockwise. Consider hurricanes. They are low pressure storms where the lower the pressure, the higher the winds. If a low pressure front moves over your area (from west to east), we can expect winds out of the south (blowing to the north) as the front approaches and winds out of the north (blowing to the south) as the front moves east of our area. Conversely, if a high pressure front moves into the area in the same manner, the wind directions will be reversed from what the low pressure gives us. The second and equally important weather factor that affects wildland fire behavior is relative humidity. Relative humidity measures water content in the air. When relative humidity is high like in June, July and August (and May, September, October, etc.) then the water content of ground fuels cannot evaporate as well because the air is already saturated with water. This prevents the drying out of the ground fuels and explains why we don’t run as many woods fires in June, July, and August. However, when the relative humidity drops, water content in the air is low which means the water in ground fuels can evaporate allowing our ground fuels to dry out. This means the lower the humidity, the higher the wildland fire danger.

Now let’s consider the response. More often than not, a wildland fire is called in by someone who is attending the fire and attempting to keep it under control. Only after it has left their property and entered their neighbor’s do they call the magic phone number and ask for our help. The address that they give our dispatch center, which is relayed to us, is typically their own, which is where the fire was started. During our response, we should consider that where we are likely needed is not where the fire started, but where it is going. While we use the address to which we are dispatched to get us to the appropriate area, the first-in engine may need to consider responding to another house or area than that exact address. A windshield size-up is always necessary. Given their reduced workforce, we no longer rely on the Forestry Commission to respond first to woods fires and call us if they need us. Our roles have been reversed as we now respond first to woods fires and call the Forestry Commission if they are needed. While the size of the fire may prevent us from extinguishing every tree, dead snag, and six inches of duff or root bed, we are definitely interested in protecting homes and other property. This protection may be difficult when we arrive to one of the aforementioned subdivisions that have been cut into the woods with no defensible spaces and is only accessed by a single narrow road. When we arrive and find that a dozen homes and twice as many vehicles are being threatened simultaneously, the windshield survey is critical. We cannot expect our single engine to protect a dozen homes and vehicles. We have to identify that need for additional resources immediately and order them promptly from our dispatch center. This may involve another engine, brush trucks, tenders, or perhaps a full structural assignment (or two).

Next, let’s look at the organization. In the California Wildfires of 2008, one of the first arriving officers on day one ordered 250 Type I Engines in a single radio transmission. His request would ultimately be part of a response that included 1,503 engines, 467 hand crews, 423 tenders, 291 bulldozers, and 142 helicopters. As we order up massive amounts of resources to handle the incident with which we are faced, we need to ensure we put an Incident Management System (IMS) in place to accommodate them. This is the part of the IMS we refer to as modular organization. As the incident grows, so does the number of resources, and therefore so must the IMS.

Our strategies will be fairly straight forward.

  1.  Life Safety
    We should ensure that we are keeping the fire away from people and in areas where we aren’t absolutely sure we can do that; we need to move the people away from the fire.
  2.  Incident Stabilization
    This probably starts with confinement of the fire to ensure that the area affected is no longer growing. Next, we should consider allowing evacuated residents back into their homes. The demobilization of large numbers of resources should also be kept in the backs of our minds.
  3.  Property Conservation
    We want to protect homes, other buildings and mobile property; however, there may be times where attempting to do so puts unnecessary risk on ourselves and may be a futile attempt. In this case, we refer to strategy number one and avoid placing ourselves in an indefensible position.

Our tactics will likely involve ground cover, fire extinguishment as well as structural protection. While conducting the tasks to accomplish our tactics, we should remember to attempt to back into the positions from which we will fight, as driving forward during an evacuation is always quicker (and safer) than backing up. All personnel should be wearing full structural personal protective equipment (PPE) or an approved wildland firefighting PPE alternative. Keep apparatus doors and windows closed during operations. We don’t want a stray ember igniting the cab interior of our apparatus, especially if we are depending on that apparatus to get us out of harm’s way if we are unable to hold our positions. We should also insure we have mobile water supply apparatus (tenders) available to refill engines and brush trucks if we are operating in an area without comprehensive pressurized hydrant coverage. As tractor/dozer operators have limited visibility in smoke filled woods, we should never assume that they see hand crews or other firefighters. It is always a good idea to evacuate the immediate area whenever you hear a tractor/dozer approaching. When stretching hose lines, we should keep them as short as possible so that they can be quickly rolled up or packed up in case a quick evacuation is needed. We should also strive to organize the resources into Strike Teams (same type resources) and Task Forces (different type resources) in order to more effectively manage the tasks. As in all operations, the overall plan is information dependent. On a large wildland fire, the Incident Commander may be putting resources in place on the assumption that you will be able to hold your position. If it appears that you cannot hold your position, you should inform the Incident Commander immediately, so they can adjust the other resources accordingly.

Remember to keep the information flowing to the Incident Commander. Let them know what’s going on, even when things are going well and especially if they’re not. We should remember the aforementioned budgetary constraints placed upon the Forestry Commission over the last several years. We no longer wait for a tractor/dozer for only 20 minutes. Estimated times of arrival are now frequently 30-45 minutes. This delay in deploying equipment to confine the fire over land means we will be faced with a larger fire by the time that equipment arrives. This means we better get our noses in the map books to determine where the next closest subdivision, house or building might be and determine how long it will take the fire to get there. Still more resources may be needed to protect those areas.

Wildland fires are yet another challenging part of our many responsibilities. They range from the small, one engine, 10 minute fires, to the ones that last days and days and require extensive outside aid. Remember to continually learn about wildland fire behavior, especially as it relates to weather. Train on the associated strategies, tactics and tasks and practice using large incident management organizational charts and NIMS forms so you will be proficient with them and properly prepared if the “firestorm” strikes your jurisdiction.

Be safe and do good.

David Greene has over 20 years experience in the fire service and is currently the Assistant Chief with Colleton County (SC) Fire-Rescue. He is currently working on his PhD through Oklahoma State University. He is a certified Executive Fire Officer through the National Fire Academy, holds the Chief Fire Officer Designation and is an adjunct instructor for the South Carolina Fire Academy. He is also a Nationally Registered Paramedic, is certified through Fire Officer IV, a Resident Fire Marshal and a certified Fire and Explosion Investigator through the National Association of Fire Investigators. He can be reached at [email protected].

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