ATTACKING WILDFIRES TOGETHER

BY STEVE BROWN

The increase in damage from wildfires in America makes it essential to use all federal, state, local, tribal, and private firefighting resources to combat this enemy. Rapid initial attack using all appropriate resources available during the early hours of a fire can save millions of dollars in losses and firefighting costs during the course of a large wildland fire. The implementation of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) after 9/11 further signals the value to our nation of working together.

Firefighters know that the situation on the ground is not getting better. The climate prognosis for the next several decades is for generally warmer and drier conditions. The continuing movement of our growing population onto private lands covered with wildland fuels dramatically increases the life risks to fire personnel and citizens. This urbanizing influence further links the outcome of wildland fires to more effective use of all governmental, tribal, and private fire resources.


(1) A local government engine making rapid initial attack on a wildland fire in light fuel to keep the fire from approaching structures. [Photos courtesy of the Chico (CA) Fire Department.]

Firefighters rely on trust when combating fire together. That trust comes from common standards, guidelines, and agreements; training together; and actually fighting fire together. Because the battle is so high-risk, firefighters must develop confidence in those with whom they’ll be working. Though prior good experience on an actual fire is most compelling, there are many other ways to establish that trust. Chief among them are nationally accepted standards and guidelines.

NIMS is the umbrella system designed to integrate the best incident management practices into a national framework used for any incident, no matter what cause, size, or complexity. Not surprisingly, since the majority of large-scale emergency management experience in the country comes from wildland fires, NIMS has many parallels to the Incident Command System (ICS) and the National Wildland Fire Qualification System (NWCG 310-1).

Nationwide benefits of NIMS as related to wildfires are

• Standardized organization, processes, and procedures;

• Standards for training and exercises;

• Personnel qualification standards;

• Standardized equipment certification standards; and

• Interoperable communications.

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG), which includes federal, state, local, and tribal membership, provides the familiar national model for wildland fire qualification from firefighter to incident commander. Qualifications are achieved through a combination of prerequisites, knowledge (training), skills (practical application), currency of experience, and physical capability. These qualifications are documented using the so-called “Red Card,” which allows firefighters to confirm their nationally recognized capabilities. NIMS refers to this as credentialing. Some states, such as California, have adopted similar guidelines for state and local government fire personnel.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been very clear that it will enforce industry standards regarding safety at wildland fires. In addition to NIMS and NWCG standards, additional guidances are available through the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The NWCG Fireline Handbook and Incident Response Pocket Guide contain volumes of helpful information regarding all aspects of wildland firefighting with a strong emphasis on safety considerations. The goal of many incident command teams is to put a pocket guide into the hands of every firefighter on the fire. Numerous mini-training sessions and tailgate safety briefings can be developed from these pocket-sized documents.

IFSTA has developed a manual called, Wildland Fire Fighting for Structural Firefighters (Fourth Edition), for departments that will be involved in wildland firefighting. It provides direct support to NFPA 1051, Standard for Wildland Fire Professional Qualifications (2002 Edition). Fire Protection Publications, through Oklahoma State University, also has a manual called Model Procedures Guide for Wildland Firefighting, which was developed by a national multiagency consortium representing wildland and structural firefighting agencies. It provides much information on wildland firefighting and how to organize a wildland fire.

A second area of trust leading to sharing resources at wildland fires is the agreements established by fire service leaders before the fire starts. They may be mutual- or automatic-aid agreements, mutual threat zone agreements, statewide fire assistance agreements, interstate compacts, or assistance-by-hire contracts. Though these may not directly affect the firefighter on the line, they can greatly affect the outcome. This is particularly true for agencies that have wildland overhead or equipment in close proximity to the fire but do not have jurisdiction at the incident. There must be an agreement to immediately deploy these resources that meet the fiscal requirements of the sending agency and have been agreed to ahead of time. Local government and private companies, with their generally smaller budgets, must be made financially whole. This is particularly true where little reciprocity can be expected from the wildland fire agency.

Extinguishing the Fire

Now it is time to put out the new fire. Based on the fuel (including exposed life and property), weather, and topography, standard response levels should be established to include engines, crews, heavy equipment such as dozers or tractor plows, aviation resources where needed, and command personnel. This is where we set turf aside and build the first alarm from the closest appropriate resources, regardless of agency. This could literally be a combination of federal, state, tribal, local, and private resources. They could be a mix of fulltime, volunteer, wildland, and municipal personnel and equipment. As long as resources are qualified and properly equipped, including common communications, they should be deployed immediately. The objective of any first alarm in the American fire service should be to provide sufficient resources in the first alarm to successfully mitigate the emergency at least 98 percent of the time. On a wildland fire that starts in an area with significant exposed life and property on a bad fire day, this first alarm might represent a substantial amount of firefighting resources.


(2) Type 1 municipal engine with design features and equipment to enhance wildland firefighting while retaining maximum urban capabilities.

It is important to remember to attack the flanks of the wildland fire as well as provide protection to the people and structures. While attacking a wildfire, regardless of where you attack the fire, you must achieve and maintain a solid anchor point, a location like a road or stream that will hold the fire you put out. If the first alarm is correct for the conditions, there should rarely be a situation where the incident commander has to decide between perimeter control and structure protection. Even as the fire grows the first afternoon, the jurisdictional agencies should give strong consideration to using the closest resources and backfilling them with more distant resources. The only limit to the depth of resources available for a wildland fire are meaningful arrival time and cost. The nation has never been tapped out for resources at a major natural disaster.

The incident commander and line overhead should use resources based on their qualifications and capabilities rather than the type of fire agency they come from. For example, both NIMS and ICS type apparatus are based on their general capability and role, but this is sometimes deceptive. Type 1 and 2 engines can be designed and are often equipped to be effective in both the municipal and wildland environments.


(3) Wildland Type 3 4×4 engine operated by a City fire department that would be staffed by fulltime municipal firefighters qualified under NWCG 310-1.

As an example, the Chico Fire Department is an ISO Class 2 city and provides a high level of municipal structure firefighting service to more than 72,000 citizens. The city has nearly 10,000 acres of wildland and urban interface within the city, and the entire eastern boundary is grass-, brush-, and timber-covered wildland protected by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Because of this fire problem, all city Type 1 first line apparatus include the following additional features:

1. 15 approach and departure angle;

2. front skid plate;

3. short front bumper 112-inch attack line;

4. two-stage, 1,500-gpm main pump;

5. 130 gpm @ 150 psi diesel auxiliary pump serving all discharges less than 212-inch;

6. 750-gallon water tank;

7. Class A foam system with 25-gallon cell;

8. complete mutual-aid mobile radio system;

9. mutual-aid portable radio for every crew member;

10. booster reel with 150 feet of 1-inch lightweight booster line with high-flow capability;

11. hard suction hose for drafting-18 feet in three sections;

12. I-zone brackets for structure protection hose;

13. traction tread rear tires; and

14. traction-lock rear axle.

To supplement the role of the first-line engine wildland attack, the city maintains two Type 3 wildland engines and a brush patrol (Type 5) unit. Many fire agencies throughout the country do the same. This creates a significant reservoir of modern wildland firefighting equipment. In California alone, there are more than 1,200 local government Type 3 wildland fire apparatus, which is more than the combined total of federal and state engines in the inventory.

To further enhance the capabilities of engines generally thought to be for “structure protection only,” chief officer students are taught through the California Fire Academy Wildland Fire Command Course that the following standard list of wildland equipment greatly extends their usefulness:

• one 600-foot single jacket 112-inch wildland hose in 200-foot hose packs;

• two each 112-inch 1-inch gated hose tees;

• one each 112-inch combination nozzle w/detachable bail shutoff (capable of at least 50-gpm flow);

• 400-foot single jacket 112-inch wildland hose (600 feet recommended) (carried in two 200-foot packs);

• one each 112-inch combination nozzle w/detachable bail shutoff (capable of at least 50-gpm flow);

• 200-foot single jacket 1-inch wildland hose (carried in one 200-foot pack);

• two each 1-inch combination nozzles (capable of at least 15-gpm flow);

• two each wildland hose clamps;

• one each small spanner wrench;

one each 112-inch NH female 1-inch IP male reducer;

• one each back pump (rigid or bladder style);

• one each drip torch w/fuel;

• nine each backfire fusees;

• one each shovel, short handle, round pointed;

• one each McLeod tool;

• one each Pulaski tool;

• three each nonperishable rations;

• three gallons water, container(s);

• three each headlamps, hands-free w/1 extra set of batteries; and

• one each fire shelter, extra (kept in cab).

Though this list could be modified for various areas of the country, the point is that a modest expenditure gives urban style engines a significantly greater wildland firefighting capability. Typically, this equipment is carried only during the wildland fire season or is kept available for quick loading when needed.

Even with this standard training and equipment, firefighters always return to trust:

1 Trust that the other firefighter is committed to wildland fire safety and believes that not a single firefighter should die fighting a wildland fire.

2Trust that the other firefighter is committed to wildand fire training.

3Trust that the other firefighters are fully qualified for the position they are filling on the fire.

4Trust that the other firefighters maintain and operate their equipment in a responsible manner.

5Trust that the leaders of firefighters have developed agreements that cause wildland fires to be kept small.

STEVE BROWN is chief of the Chico (CA) Fire Department. He has been the lead instructor for California’s Chief Officer Wildland Command Course since 1981, was a subject matter expert for the IFSTA Wildland Fire Fighting for Structural Firefighters Manual, co-chairs the California Incident Command Certification Task Force, and is a certified incident commander and operations chief. He has been a chief officer in both municipal and wildland situations since 1976.

Wildland Fire Supply Partners

Whether the setting is a Northern California forest, grasslands in the Northern Plains, or the Alaskan wilderness, wildland firefighters can rely on an unusual, mostly federal partnership to support their efforts. This federal activity is coordinated by the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC).

NIFC is a joint effort of the USDA Forest Service and an array of supporting entities, many of which have significant land management responsibilities:

BLM: Bureau of Land Management

BIA: Bureau of Indian Affairs

FWS: Fish & Wildlife Service

NPS: National Parks Service

NOAA: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

OAS: Office of Aircraft Services

NASF: National Association of State Foresters

USFA: U.S. Fire Administration (FEMA-Department of Homeland Security)

To stage resources close to fire locations, the NIFC works with the National Interagency Cache System (NICS), a network of 11 fire caches that reaches from Kentucky and Minnesota through the western United States all the way to the BLM Alaska cache. These caches in turn provide needed supplies to federal, state, and local firefighters throughout the fire season.

One of the challenges of the federal firefighting community is allocating scarce resources, including storage space. Though the NIFC operates its fire caches to supply the front lines, it’s not always a simple matter to locate additional storage space in communities like Hurley, New Mexico, or Ft. Wainwright, Alaska. Each cache manager must stock up in the spring in anticipation of the summer fire season. But each season brings unpredictable patterns of fires and weather.

In that situation, it’s critical that the NIFC program managers be able to rely on suppliers for resupply operations.

NIFC and various suppliers work together to ensure that improvements in safety and technology are quickly made available to the front line firefighters. Whether that’s updating the fire shelter noted above or testing the brightness and durability of helmet lights, the U.S. Forest Service Technology Centers are constantly testing equipment and evaluating possible improvements. Results of these testing sessions, along with “lessons learned” in the field, are typically exchanged during an annual fire conference.

As the Forest Service certifies new items for use in the field, supply teams work to incorporate the new inventory into their distribution facilities and into the catalogs and CDs that customers use to prepare their orders. While funding and space are ongoing concerns for all participants, the focus is always on providing the greatest margin of safety for those at the end of the supply chain.

-Sherri Brown, director, business development, GSA Global Supply

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