Ground Cover Fires: Train to Control
Gene Carlson’s Volunteers Corner
Ground cover fires present a major problem to firefighters throughout the nation. There are different types of ground cover fires that occur all over the country. They include: surface and duff fires in the eastern woods, heavy grass fires in the swamps and bogs of the southeast, grass fires in the vacant lots of cities and across the central plains, heavy brush fires in the far west, and forest fires in large, undeveloped areas.
Because these fires start under such diverse conditions, we cannot discuss in detail all the problems. Causes include natural occurrences, careless campers and hunters, and an increasing number of arson fires.
In combatting these incidents the fire service must follow all safety precautions. Injuries to personnel can occur due to improper use of tools and apparatus, heat exhaustion, falling, entrapment, and asphyxiation. Fatigue can also lead to loss of judgement, poor decision making, and a proneness to accidents. Personnel should be rotated and adequately rested to avoid the fatigue factor.
Safety is attained through training, and must be given top priority. Firefighters must be taught to always observe what the fire is doing; to anticipate the fire’s behavior; to establish escape routes; to rely on an officer as a safety lookout in dangerous areas; to remain calm, alert, and clear thinking; and to stay in communication both tactically and strategically.
The type of protective clothing worn is determined by the incident’s duration. Protection must be provided for the head and eyes. The body is shielded by jackets, pants, jumpsuits, or standard fire clothes of fire resistant material. Gloves and proper footwear protect the extremities.
Personnel responding from home or work must not become engaged in firefighting while wearing synthetic fabric clothing. Firefighters should take the time to don protective clothing unless they are wearing long sleeve cotton shirts and trousers.
The direction and rate of spread of a ground fire is strongly influenced by the fuel condition, wind and weather factors, and topography features. Obviously, the fire will burn with greater intensity and at a higher rate both uphill and downwind. Fire personnel must be constantly aware of the situation in order to maintain their own safety and that of the crew.
If conditions allow, a direct attack on the fire from the burned area is generally the best approach. Indirect attacks should be planned sufficiently ahead of the fire front in order to maintain safety. Remember to consider the wind conditions, spotting potential, fuel type, and natural fire breaks.
Apparatus safety is also a must. Personnel should be properly secured. When working from a parked apparatus, position it in a protected location. Parked vehicles, properly chocked, should be left running and facing the escape route. Make sure they do not block the emergency traffic flow.
When driving the apparatus, watch for rocks, fallen trees, low limbs, and heavy smoke. Use a spotter when backing, driving in grass higher than the bumper, or at night on rough terrain. If overrun by the fire, personnel are safer inside the apparatus.
The final area of safety to be discussed involves the proper use of tools. All firefighters need to be proficient with the hand and/or power tools they will be required to operate during these incidents. This includes correct and safe procedures for carrying, maintenance, handling, and operating.
Training must include more than just an explanation and demonstration of how to use the tools. Each student must have a hands-on opportunity during practice sessions, so he will feel more confident at the actual fire scene.
There is always a large number of personnel and equipment present at these ground fire operations. That is why they must be well organized. This has been the case at many of the extensive campaign fires in the west and, most recently, in the southeast.
The Incident Command System was developed to provide for fireground management at situations of all magnitudes. There is no question that the system works. All firefighters should become familiar with the system because they will often be interfacing with and augmenting forestry personnel who use it. In addition, the system is directly adaptable to and very effective in efficient structural firefighting.
Several precautionary procedures can reduce the number and effects of these fires. The first step is to determine water supply needs and sources by surveying the area in question. Estimate the possible fuel load, and take special note of south, west, and east slopes that tend to be drier.
The next step is to evaluate exposures and determine how to protect them. You must consider the possible weather conditions when planning your strategy. Predictions of hot, dry periods merit special consideration. Strong winds are the most critical factor during control operations, and prevailing wind conditions must be studied.
If you collect adequate and accurate data you can perform computer modeling to predict probability, severity, and magnitude of wildfire incidents. Resources must then be identified and their response planned accordingly to combat these probable situations. Incidents can also be minimized by preventive back-burning that will lessen the fuel load in front of the fire. This must be carefully planned, coordinated, and carried out so that no exposures are threatened and so that the set fires do not grow out of control.
In many instances, educating the public can help reduce the frequency and severity of ground cover fires. This includes recommending how and where to build homes or buildings, protective systems that are available, how to build fire breaks, how to construct swimming pools for maximum fire protection, building fences and roofs to lessen exposure, and how to react should a fire occur.
Firefighting procedures at ground cover situations follow the same general operations as those at structures. Perimeter control is established, the fire is contained, and then extinguished. The primary objectives are to save lives and property when they are endangered. Due to the length of the campaign, the fatigue, and the highly labor intensive manual procedures, the safety of the firefighters must remain paramount.
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Size up of the fire will have to locate the head(s) for early containment. All exposures must be considered for protection. Evaluate and use natural barriers to your advantage. In addition to impeding the fire, they also can be employed for access, locating staff and support personnel, and as escape routes. Available water sources should be reviewed for supply or other uses.
After size up, plan the attack. Direct, indirect, or air attacks may be used along with backfiring operations to control the fire. In some cases, a mobile attack will be mounted using the envelopment, pincer, or tandem methods. In all incidents, a thorough overhaul must be done to ensure that the wind does not spread smoldering material to an unburned section.
Ground cover fires can be so small that they are nothing more than a nuisance. Or, they can require a campaign operation lasting several weeks. No matter what the potential situation in your locale, plan for it in advance in order to prevent the loss of property, watershed, grasslands, and timber. Remember to follow all safety procedures to avoid needless injuries or possible firefighter deaths.