Incident Safety Officers in the Wildland Urban Interface

Wildland Urban Interface By Thomas W. Aurnhammer

On July 26, 2018, Redding, California, Fire Inspector Jeremy Stoke was killed while he was battling the Carr Fire in Northern California’s Shasta County. It was reported that a fire tornado was seen swirling near the segment of Buenaventura Boulevard that connects Land Park to Keswick Dam Road. Stoke was driving south on Buenaventura between Lake Keswick Estates and the Land Park/Stanford Hills subdivisions. He broadcast a Mayday over the radio and advised that he needed a water drop and was getting burned over. Stoke was caught in the fire tornado and died.


The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) issued a “Green Sheet,” Informational Summary Report of Serious or Near Serious CAL FIRE Injuries, Illnesses and Accidents, on this incident. The report noted that the large fire tornado was one of the primary causes of the entrapment and death of Stoke. The report identified one of the lessons learned from this tragedy as the need to recognize that the wildland firefighting environment is becoming more extreme because of a combination of a changing climate, overly dense and dry fuels, changing weather patterns, and continued growth of communities into fire-prone landscapes.


To anyone in the fire service, the need for incident safety officers (ISOs) has been highlighted by the number of injuries and line-of-duty deaths we continue to see each year. Although ISO responsibilities can be assigned to a command staff member or retained by the incident commander (IC), someone needs to be accountable for that function at the incident scene. Add that into the complex nature of a wildland urban interface (WUI) fire, and the need for an additional set of skills for the structural ISOs becomes evident.

Structure fire officers with insights into a wildland fire point of view can create a safer working environment at the initial stages of a WUI fire. Much like structural firefighting, WUI fires may have a person assigned as the ISO, but everyone operating at these incidents carries a safety responsibility. An ISO’s activities within the first five minutes of a WUI fire can set the stage for the next five days.

Situational Awareness

An increase in the ISO’s situational awareness when operating at a WUI fire should include the following:

Fire Behavior. The behavior of the fire is going to dictate the amount of time firefighters will need to get to an escape route and into a safety zone. Depending on changing conditions, that time estimate may be just a “best guess.” ISOs should plan for the worst-case scenario and build that exigency into their assessments.


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Fuel, Topography, Weather. Fuels in the WUI are comprised of indigenous vegetation, as well as structures, and their characteristics can have a great impact on wildfire behavior. Topography encompasses the physical features of an area, including slope and aspect of the landscape. Wildland fire behavior increases when the fire is traveling upslope. The aspect, or the direction the slope faces, will also create drier fuels. Wind will move fire across various terrains and cause fires to grow rapidly. Wind is also the major factor in igniting spot fires. High temperatures and low humidity will also cause an increase in fire activity. Rain and high humidity can slow fire growth, but the WUI ISO needs to be aware of the potential impact of incoming storms and lightning.

Barriers to Good Situational Awareness. The WUI ISO needs to be aware of the barriers to good situational awareness, which can have a negative impact on the ISO as well as the firefighters operating at the incident. Some of these barriers have been identified as perception, excessive motivation, complacency, overload, fatigue, and poor communications. An awareness of these barriers and how to overcome them will improve your performance at the WUI incident.

Incident Command System (ICS)

Under the ICS, the IC is responsible for every position within the ICS organizational chart unless someone is specifically assigned to fill that role. The thought here is that assigning personnel to these positions will assist the IC with managing the emergency as well as provide an increased level of safety to all personnel operating at an incident. The ISO is one of three positions that make up the IC’s command staff. If no ISO is appointed, the IC retains the duties that the ISO would be carrying out. Depending on the fire conditions found on the IC’s arrival, holding onto those responsibilities may not be prudent.


Risk management practices at a WUI incident should include the five steps outlined in classic risk management. Those five steps are identification of hazards, evaluation of hazards, prioritizing of hazards, controlling hazards, and monitoring hazards.

Operational effectiveness needs to be assessed by communicating with operating companies and may necessitate a tour of the incident area by aircraft.

Personnel accountability needs to be maintained and whatever system is employed by responding fire departments must be followed.

Exposure to smoke, heat, and the physical exertion needed to carry out wildland firefighting tactics require that the WUI ISO meet increased rehabilitation needs.

Performing a reconnaissance of a WUI fire may necessitate climbing to high ground for a clear view, as long as the fire cannot travel to the area from which you are observing the incident.

Traffic control measures involving civilian vehicles and fire apparatus need to be addressed.

Recommendations for additional resources need to be based on fire behavior, hazard assessments, and firefighter safety needs.


The use of checklists in emergency situations has been based on the fact that you can’t remember everything in stressful situations. A locally developed WUI ISO checklist can provide a tool to ensure that critical tasks are not overlooked. There are advantages and disadvantages to using a checklist; they range from ease of use to becoming mind-bogglingly complex. Whatever checklist is developed should incorporate the need for the WUI ISO to understand his limitations.

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s Incident Response Pocket Guide establishes standards for wildland fire incident response, and it also contains information that will assist the WUI ISO in developing that checklist. An Incident Action Plan Safety Analysis (ICS Form 215A) can also be used in conjunction with a checklist. Any checklists developed for the WUI ISO should contain the following information:

LCES (Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes, and Safety Zones). Ideally, LCES should be established before companies start fire suppression efforts. The expectation is that the ISO be aware of what the fire is doing and where it is expected to go. The orderly evacuation and effective escape of firefighters must also be planned for and communicated.

Standard Firefighting Orders. These guidelines were originally designed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service to allow firefighters to operate safely in hazardous locations, reduce danger to personnel, and increase firefighting efficiency: Keep informed on fire weather conditions and forecasts; know what your fire is doing at all times; base all actions on the current and expected behavior of the fire; identify escape routes and safety zones, and make them known; post a lookout where there is possible danger; be alert, keep calm, think clearly; act decisively; maintain prompt communication with your forces, your supervisor, and adjoining forces; give clear instructions and ensure they are understood; maintain control of your forces at all times; and fight fire aggressively after you have provided for safety first.

Watch-Out Situations. They are more detailed and cautionary than the Standard Firefighting Orders and are intended to reduce the risk of wildland firefighting: The fire has not been scouted and sized up; it is in the country and not seen in daylight; safety zones and escape routes have not been identified; you are unfamiliar with weather and local factors influencing fire behavior; you are uninformed regarding strategy, tactics, and hazards; the instructions and assignments are not clear; there is no communication with your company or supervisor; the line is constructed without a safe anchor point; the fire line is being built downhill with the fire below; you are attempting a frontal assault on the fire; there is unburned fuel between you and the fire; you cannot see the main fire and are not in communication with someone who can; you are on a hillside where rolling material can ignite material below; the weather is getting hotter and drier; wind is increasing or changing direction; spot fires across the fire line are getting frequent; terrain and fuels make escape to the safety zone difficult; and you are taking a nap near the fire line.

WUI Watch-Outs. ISOs should take into account these WUI watch-outs when assessing the risks associated with a WUI fire incident: access and narrow one-way roads, bridge weight limits, water supply, defensible space and natural fuels, extreme fire behavior, evacuation of the public and livestock, propane and aboveground fuel tanks, power lines and poles, local citizens fighting fire, and air tanker retardant drops and helicopter bucket operations.

Structural firefighters operating in the WUI require an ISO to assess and address general fire suppression risks, along with WUI-specific hazards. The use of ISOs at WUI incidents represents a big step in ensuring that “Everyone Goes Home.”


Thomas W. Aurnhammer is a 43-year veteran of the fire service, a fifth-generation firefighter, and the retired chief of the Los Pinos Fire District in Ignacio, Colorado. He is a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and has a B.S. degree in fire administration. Aurnhammer also has the Chief Fire Officer designation and is a member of the Institution of Fire Engineers, U.S. Branch.

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