“Let the Big Dog Eat”


Lately, I have recorded a lot of doodles on my little shirt pocket notebook. Mostly the notes have related to the reports about the really serious wildland fires that have occurred in our country. The recent incident in Arizona killed the greatest number of firefighters in a long time, and the huge fire in Yosemite almost burned up the biggest trees on the planet. It seems that we are now paying the check for a lot of the conditions that contribute to such horrific vegetation burns. Once they get rolling, these incidents produce bigger and bigger tragic losses to both our firefighters and our forests, each an irreplaceable treasure. When I refer to “forest,” I include areas where trees, brush, and grass are present.

During my career when and where I was employed, I operated as a “city slicker structural firefighter.” We would occasionally respond to fires we called “grass fires” that mostly involved light desert vegetation. We would fight these fires using hoselines designed to control building fires and tools we used to manipulate burning buildings, and we would wear structural firefighting personal protective equipment that was not meant to be used for wildland operations. In fact, I worked in the street so long ago that we actually called tankers “tankers” and airplanes “airplanes.” We had no place that would be regarded as an “interface” area in contemporary terms. Virtually every drop of water I applied came through a fire hydrant hooked to a municipal water system.

I have always admired the brave souls who face an entire forest! My training, approach, and perspective on exposure protection involved mostly operating fire streams in between the fire building and the uninvolved structure next door to attempt to prevent the latter from becoming the former. I could never really contemplate being surrounded by an endless supply of fuel (highly combustible vegetation), particularly when in close quarters to some of it that is currently burning. Another distressing fact about these major wildland incidents is that they are significant (big) enough and typically burn long enough that they get their own name. A consistent structural fire command objective of mine was to put the fire out before anyone had a chance to name it.

As these current tragic incidents have been reported on, the media have predictably called on a lot of very experienced wildland firefighting officers to describe, review, and comment on the details of what happened at these major events. These expert characters have been fighting and commanding major forest fires throughout their long and very active careers. Many of them are employed by state and federal agencies. They are the battlefield generals who have truly gone to, survived, and been tested by wildland fire war.

The wildland fire system commanded by these very capable incident commanders (ICs) typically can (and does) assemble and operate with a resource level that is way beyond any local fire department capability. The ICs have the logistical and command systems large enough and robust enough to routinely conduct long-term, multiple-agency “campaign” operations. Experienced Type 1 Overhead Teams have an awesome battlefield command and control capability and sadly have been routinely tested by the recent burning forest firefighting extravaganzas.

The wildland firefighting community in Southern California developed in the early 1970s the current incident command system (ICS) the fire service now uses. I was lucky enough to observe and then study that system development, and like all structural firefighters, I have used the foundation they developed as the basis for commanding all hazard incidents including structural fire events. The modest involvement I have had throughout the years in attempting to understand, explain, and apply local ICS application to routine everyday hometown incidents is based on that original system. I am a grateful, lifelong student of the original command system developed by these ICS pioneers.

Recently, the media have (predictably) called on very experienced, senior wildland firefighting experts to describe and comment on what has occurred at these large-loss burning vegetation festivals. I was attracted to a comment by a grizzled, very senior guy who had 40 years of commanding these big deals. The reporter drilled down into the details of how the control forces approached these events. He asked the commander how a strategic evaluation is developed to determine how a significant amount of burning forest is approached and then engaged in the beginning and throughout a firefight.

I have always been attracted to (and many times write down in my little book) short, really effective answers to long questions. I loved his quick response to what could have been a very complicated answer. He basically described what is a very serious and sophisticated command approach that directly relates to where and when firefighting is actually executed by saying, “Sometimes, you just got to let the big dog eat.”

To me, that was an absolutely WOW answer. I have pondered how to answer that same tactical/command question for the past 50 years. When I read his response, I thought he simply nailed it in a short, simple sentence that could be explained and expanded into a very legitimate chapter in a firefighting operations and command textbook.

It is the IC’s responsibility to always match the size of the attack with the size of the incident problem. Making this match may sound simple, but doing it safely and effectively can be very challenging and requires a ton of experience, skill, and personal discipline. This fight/no-fight decision requires a very practical understanding that on the fireground whatever and whoever is bigger wins. Calling the “who’s bigger” play requires the IC to evaluate if the H2O can overpower the British thermal units and, if not, to then stay out of Mr. Fire’s way and protect the rest of the zip code until enough resources are assembled to make it an unfair fight (water overpowers fire) or until the amount of fuel burns down to where the water application will control the remaining fuel. Basically, the only reason you should be close to a significant amount of burning material is that you currently have the water and support to extinguish that fire. If the decision is that the heat is bigger than the water, you had better just let the big dog eat simply because once he starts eating, he is going to keep on eating until dinner is over. If you interrupt his dinner, you may not survive that interruption.

I am going to pause here for a moment to share my experience with big dogs. My family for the past 40 years has lived with (a series) of Old English mastiffs as family pets. They are very nice dogs, which is a happy characteristic because they weighed from 220 to 250 pounds. They are good-natured, easygoing big guys who were very positive with all their roommates: humans; cats; and their best buddy, a five-pound little white dog. They are very patient and were constant companions to our three kids.

The dogs tolerated all the screwy things our kids did to them-all three (kids) eventually became B-Shifters. They did stuff like dressing the dogs up in goofy trick-or-treat costumes; telling people who asked what breed they were, “When we got them, they were supposed to be Chihuahuas, but they just kept growing and growing”; hooking them up so they could enthusiastically pull them around on anything with wheels; putting them in bed under the covers to agitate their Mom. When she came in to wake up the kid to go to school, she actually woke up the mastiff. BUT, everyone knew that playtime was over when the big dog was having his supper: Kids, cats, and little dog buddies did not get in between the pooch and the (very big) bowl of grub.

I think the wildland firefighting commander (and expert) said the same thing using fewer words. He described a firefighting decision that must be made that involves where the firefight will be staged and where the firefight will not be staged. The basic terms of that fight necessarily have their own strengths/weaknesses. The capability of water is that it can only control what it can overpower/overwhelm, and firefighting is a process that constantly involves a battle of opposing superiority between those basic elements: the water and the fire.

The reality and proportion of the fire/water relationship is that the fire (as a timeless starting point) is simply superior because it is inherently created and expanded and strongly resists being extinguished by anything that can be created by a human. It is based on and directed as a function of good old Mother Nature. A really smart guy observed the tough way “Mom” actually operates: She bides her time, picks her spot, and kicks your butt. She is natural. We are “synthetic.”

Mother Nature is designed, and operates, to propel herself to expand and then expend until she uses up the energy that comes with that natural event-the forest fire will burn naturally until the fuel is gone if a lot of involved and exposed fuel is present, the hurricane will stop when the wind runs out, the flood will gurgle on until it runs out of water-and the process will feed on itself. Basically, no one must add to, support, or direct the progress of the natural event. Mother Nature is driving the incident. Once it gets going, if you get in her way, she will simply run over you and not even notice you-to her, you are a minor pedestrian fatality. Mother Nature draws a very hard line: She will naturally conduct, convect, and radiate on to anything combustible and will quickly injure and then kill anyone or anything that is alive. No normal thing can withstand direct flame contact.

What we do and the action we create are man-made and directed. We must assemble, arrange, and manage to set up and operate all the resources required to get ahead of and stabilize the incident problem. None of those resources operate automatically; they all must be humanly directed. Fire hose will not stretch itself, tactical tools will just passively stay in their brackets until someone physically removes and manipulates them, and water will not automatically pump itself.

If we stop supporting the physical escalation of the tactical effort by calling for more personnel/equipment, the firefighting expansion will abruptly stop. The natural fire growth attempts to quickly expand itself to overpower the size of the fire attack; sometimes the fire is at the stage of very rapid expansion, and it becomes impossible for the humanly developed and directed water/support to catch up with the development of the heat.

A current phenomenon involves hotter/faster “extreme fire behavior,” which even more aggressively outperforms our traditional fire control techniques. Many times, the fire progresses to a point where it wins the heat/water race. As a young firefighter, I asked my boss: “How fast can a fire move?” As usual, he (typically) didn’t waste words. He answered, “Faster than a desperately running man!” That kind of says it all.

Based on this opposing superiority reality (fire vs. water), the body politic, in progressive places, requires built-in automatic extinguishing system protection and standard separation in structures large enough so that a significant fire in them would quickly overpower manual firefighting. Sprinklers consistently apply water quickly on the fire and stunt canine growth-reduce the size of the “dog.”

A critical strategic decision is that in a deep-seated and currently expanding fire, the IC must decide to either fight the fire or not fight the fire (go/no go) based on the fire’s size/stage at that moment in relation to the fire-control capability of the response resources. Basically, the fire boss must evaluate how big the “dog” is and determine if the dog is eating its dinner at that moment. Many times, if the dog is chowing down, it might be very smart, safe, and defensive to wait until it is finished.

Retired chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site bshifter.com.

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