Wildland Firefighting 101, Part 2

By Demetrius A. Kastros

For Part 1, click HERE

Tactics

All control operations, whether hose lays or mobile pumping, MUST begin with an anchor point; this is where your suppression operation starts. Anchor points need to be located and/or created where they can prevent the fire from burning around the end of the control line, possibly outflanking the suppression crews and putting fire behind them. As shown in the photo 2, the base of a hill makes an excellent anchor point for a fire burning upslope.

The initial goal of any suppression effort at a wildland fire is perimeter control. My preferred tactic for an initial attack on a wildland fire is the pincer or flanking attack. This is an attack on two sides of the fire, starting from a secure anchor point. The pincer works well with hose lays, mobile pumping, or a combination of both. Conducting suppression operations on two sides of the fire begins the process of surrounding the burn area. Starting the pincer from a secure anchor point together with suppression efforts conducted from the burn area, i.e., extending hose in the black to fight the fire, maintains an appropriate safety level while allowing for aggressive attack. A typical approach is to assign one engine to start suppression on the left flank, another crew to conduct suppression on the right. Subsequent arriving companies are then assigned alternately to support the left and right flanks as they arrive. Directly attacking the head of the fire—or mid-flank—is a tactic that requires extreme caution. This should only be done when you can safely gain access to the black or burn area of the fire, where you have a significant safety zone that can serve as your anchor point.

A typical 1½-inch wildland nozzle may flow 20 to 25 gallons per minute (gpm). This translates to about 20 minutes of open nozzle time on a 500-gallon water tank. You can bet that, on an initial attack, the nozzle will be open a lot. That means you need to anticipate the water tanks running dry on the pumping engine every 20 to 25 minutes, and that’s if they’re pumping just one hose lay. If pumping two lays, the tank will suck dry in 10 to 12 minutes. Depending on the distance to the nearest water source, one or more engines or a water tender must be committed to supply water to the engine pumping the hose lays. It may be necessary to have two engines pumping—one on each side of the fire if the flanks are far apart—which can occur along a roadside fire. Keeping your pumping engines supplied with a continuous flow of water maintains acceptable safety levels and gives the suppression crews the best chance of safely catching up with the head of the fire. Call early for whatever you need, but keep those hose lays flowing!

Efficient and safe wildland fire operations require a command structure. An incident command system provides an excellent basis for command and control. Divisions should be established by the first-arriving company officer, who is, by definition, the incident commander (IC) until the officer passes command or it is assumed by a higher rank. Command should be passed to another officer, even if that other officer is not yet on scene, if the first on scene will be heavily involved in close, hands-on suppression efforts, like extending a hose lay up a hillside. Well-trained fire departments should have procedures that designate command policies. Identifying your divisions, with Division A on the right flank and Division B on the left flank may be all the first on scene has time to do before getting into the physically challenging task of an uphill hose lay. This simple foundation lays the framework for a subsequently arriving officer to command and direct resources.

FIGURE 1. Setting up your division designations with first on scene starts to build an effective command structure into which subsequently arriving resources can easily integrate.

 

If you’re fortunate enough to have aircraft supporting your incident, coordination between air and ground forces is vital. Aircraft can be very effective in initial attack on fast-moving, forward areas of the fire that may be difficult to reach. A separate tactical radio channel for air to ground communications is ideal. Airplanes and helicopters have their own pluses and minuses.

Planes can pack a strong punch, delivering 800 gallons or more of chemical retardant along active fire areas. They lay down a wide swath over a long area. The downside to planes is they can require a long turnaround time to get back to base, reload, and return to the scene. Also, those of us who have been in the crosshairs of a direct hit from a retardant drop know what a horrific, slippery mess this can make of your unit, your crew, and the ground you’re trying to walk on. Retardant does have the advantage of adhering to the vegetation to suppress fire and can be somewhat effective in helping to create a fire break.

Helicopters typically deliver 200 or more gallons of water with one drop. Helicopters can also be very precise and give you the drop right where you want it such as in close support of the ground crews. They deliver a smaller “punch” per drop than planes, but a good copter pilot with a standing water source nearby can do fast turnarounds, giving you a bucket drop every few minutes. Air currents from copters can fan flames erratically.

There are many tactical methods for coordinating aircraft with ground forces. If you have planes and copters available, the planes are very effective working the head (leading edge) of the fire beyond the ground forces. One effective tactic with helicopters is to have them supporting the ground crews by making drops just ahead of the ground forces that can then extend their hose lays or mobile pumping to extinguish what the water drops did not. Both types of aircraft are very effective taking actions in terrain that is hard to reach for ground crews and equipment. Air drops typically need reinforcement from ground crews such as cutting line or overhaul with hose lays or mobile pumping.

Keep in mind that aircraft support the ground-based firefighting effort, they do not replace it. Aircraft can slow the progress of the fire, but ground crews still need to follow-up the air attack efforts. Aircraft, particularly copters, provide excellent support AND a safety factor for hands crews working in areas inaccessible to engines.

During your wildland suppression, you simultaneously need to be making structure protection considerations. The most effective method for protecting structures is to put the fire out, but that cannot always be accomplished in time to prevent the fire from approaching buildings. Structure protection can present daunting and fast-moving challenges in the wildland fire environment. Again, area familiarization is critical. The IC must be able to quickly predict threats to structures and move resources into position to protect endangered areas. Topographical maps that incorporate neighborhood building locations can be vital in predicting fire behavior. Mutual-aid is often called for the structure protection function. These resources will not be familiar with your immediate area. Commercially available map books and other publications can provide guidance, but are often short on detail. I like the idea of having a grid map book of your area, with pages for individual areas or neighborhoods. Have a binder with lots of copies of these grids. When mutual-aid units arrive, staging can give the mutual-aid companies a copy of the grid map, circle the area you want them to protect, and send them to their assignment. This is not very high-tech, but it works! 

We often think about prefire planning buildings. If you have considerable wildland acreage in your area, especially if there is wildland urban interface, you should prefire plan these areas to anticipate where conditions may drive the fire. These prefire plans can save time by predicting what the suppression and structure protection requirements will be before the fire ever starts. This will save valuable time and time is a major foe in a fast moving wildland fire.

Resources assigned to structural protection at a wildland fire will, at times, be faced with difficult decisions. It is often the case that the fire is of a size and is moving at a rate that makes it very difficult to protect all structures in the fire’s path. IC’s and even company officers will likely have to make decisions on how to use the resources available. You have the best chance of saving structures where the building owner has made some preparations long before the fire ever started. A defensible perimeter and a fireproof roof are two of the most important actions a homeowner can take. Fire officers will have to pick “winners”—those structures you have a reasonable expectation of saving, from “losers” or those buildings likely to burn regardless of your actions.

Hillside homes present a particularly difficult structure protection problem. A fire burning uphill on a warm sunny day is a challenge in anyone’s book. The photos 2 and 3 show prefire choices made by different homeowners on the same rural hillside.

(2) This owner has provided a wide defensible space, but this structure has a wood shake roof.

 

(3) This structure has brush very close to the home with no cleared defensible space on the downhill side. The home also has a wood shake roof.

(4) This home has a defensible space on the downhill side and a fireproof tile roof. When you cannot put an engine at every house, this type of building has two strong advantages that increase the chances structure protection groups can protect this home.

 

One of the most difficult lessons a first-year firefighter learns is something seasoned personnel know, that being you cannot save everyone or everything. You must do the most good for the most people with what you have. Defensible space and a fireproof roof give you some additional advantages compared to structures with no prefire preparations. There are no guarantees these advantages will make the difference, but when you have more homes endangered than you have resources with which to protect them, you have to make some command decisions. Make sure you have adequate space to park your engine on the side of the structure away from the hillside. A sufficient safety zone to retreat to is another strong consideration in structure protection. Retreating into the home or your engine as the firestorm burns through is not your best option, but it is better than remaining outside if the conditions become explosive. Your life and the lives of your personnel take precedence over EVERYTHING, so keep reading the conditions, have an escape plan and, if your gut says, “Get out of there”, trust your instincts and “GET OUT OF THERE!” Go find another house to save.

As stated earlier, the most effective method of structure protection in the wildland fire environment is to put the fire out. ICs need to call for significant resources early and often prior to arrival if you have indicators like smoke showing from several miles out and/or your personal knowledge that tells you to get lots of help early.

 

Resources

All command officers must know what resources are available to them at all times. Keep closely informed on what the fire conditions are in your region. Are aircraft available, or are they all committed to other incidents?

It is vital that fire units have common tactical radio channels that can be used by all units responding to the scene. Most fire departments rely on mutual aid from surrounding or regional agencies to handle emergencies beyond the day-to-day challenges we all face. Common communications are essential. It is vital all resources within any mutual-aid zone have the ability to use common radio channels to facilitate communications.

In California, an initial response by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal-Fire) to wildland fires typically includes a combination of command officers, engines, aircraft, hand crews, and dozers. The number of resources in initial response patterns increases when climate conditions become more threatening such as during hot and windy weather. Local municipal fire departments are often called to provide Type 1 engines for structure protection. Every engine in the state of California, regardless of whether it originated from local sources or Cal-Fire, can switch to common radio channels for communications.

My philosophy is simple: keep pouring resources into the fire until the perimeter is well controlled. Wildland fires often seem tame; they then can explode and spread quickly with a change in wind conditions, fuel loading, and topography. The behavior of these acts of nature is erratic and changes with variations in the fire area conditions. There is no such thing as “We have the fire in check …” You’re either making good progress encircling the perimeter or you’re not. Until you have firm, effective control of the fire, keep more and more resources coming.

 

Time

This is the fourth factor that affects fire behavior after fuel, weather, and topography. How long it will take you to arrive and begin suppression operations is a critical factor in your fire behavior prediction.

Remember the estimate we made earlier. A fire moving at 100 feet per minute is going to advance 1,000 feet in just 10 minutes. If you will not even arrive on scene for 10 to 15 minutes, buildings ½ mile away from the ignition point you may not have even been thinking about are now in jeopardy. Time is a huge enemy on a fire. A wise commander always respects the capabilities of the enemy. Respect the time factor and anticipate where this potential monster will be going!

Wildland fires will threaten neighborhoods and even entire communities, not to mention close highways, airports, and tax all manner of resources. The initial actions made by IC and first on-scene resources, like most incidents, will set the tone for the outcome of the event. ICs can make important decisions before they arrive by knowing their area, preplanning and anticipating fire behavior and calling for lots of resources.

Safety, knowing your area conditions, well-trained tactics, adequate resources, and time are the critical factors that will give you the best chance of controlling wildland fires before they become a giant monster that takes days or weeks to suppress, destroys homes and lives, and costs millions of dollars.

 

Demetrius A. Kastros is a 42-year fire service veteran and a semiretired shift battalion chief from the Milpitas (CA) Fire Department. In 1974, he was among the first group of firefighters in the State of California to be certified as an emergency medical Technician (EMT). Kastros has a college degree in fire science and is a state certified chief officer and master instructor. He continues to work in fire service-related activities. He is the lead instructor for the City of Monterey (CA) Community Emergency Response Team program. He has been published previously in digital editions of Fire Engineering.

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