The Wildland Firefighter: Where Are You From?

Wildland firefighters in Los Angeles
Photo: City of Los Angeles (CA) Fire Department

By Charlie Kludt

Writing for National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC)

When we meet a fellow firefighter, the first question we typically ask is: “Where are you from?” It is amazing how often you find a person you both know or a place where you have been.

The United States is a big country with a wide variety of land types, places to live, and people. When it comes to the fire service, we’re a variety of similar types – we are problem solvers, eager to help our neighbors, wanting to serve our communities. Yet even with our similarities, there are some definite differences in the types of emergencies, terrains, approaches, and even lingo that we use. For this article, I will touch on wildland firefighters.

When someone mentions wildland fires, the first image most people have is that of “good media.” The huge trees in a mountainous forest with flames hundreds of feet in the air. The burning grass and brush-covered mountains of California pushed by the Santa Ana winds. The ever-popular tornado flame, swirling and twisting with embers fluttering in the air around it. Airplanes and helicopters dropping the water and red slurry as they fly over, while yellow shirts of wildland firefighters are marching in line with tools and packs, digging lines, and using drip torches for back burns.

It looks good on TV.

In reality, there are many different types of terrain and natural fuels involved with wildland firefighting. As wildland firefighters, we learn the basics and then specialize for the needs of our specific locale. Are you fighting a forest fire, or a fire in a forest? A plane fire, or a fire on the plains?

The June 2021 Wildland Urban Interface Supplement

Studying the Wild Weather of Wildfires

Leading During Today’s Massive Wildfires

I have served as a career and volunteer firefighter in eastern South Dakota for almost 30 years. Most wildland firefighters I know are lean, wiry, and have a recessive mountain goat or pack mule gene in their body somewhere. I’ve reached the age and rank that allows me to be driver, pump operator, or logistics. I’m more of a fainting goat now.

In South Dakota, we have the Black Hills National Forest in the western part of the state that, periodically, provides “good media” and requires some extra assistance. However, much of our wildland experience is open range and crop fields. Every full-time (there are only five) and volunteer (320) fire department in our state has a wildland vehicle of some sort and a tanker/tender to bring more water.

On a side note for you non-wildland types, tender or tanker is used interchangeably locally. The definitions humor is: A tender drives water to you and puts it in your truck. A tanker flies it to you and drops it on your head.

I serve on the National Volunteer Fire Councils’ (NVFC) Wildland Committee. I have firefighting comrades from all over the country. In the open ranges, we don’t fight wildland fire the same as they do in the forests of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. The wildfires of Texas, Colorado, and Florida don’t match-up very evenly, either. Where are you from?

According to data from USA.com, South Dakota has the highest average daily winds of all the states at just over 21 mph. (Interestingly, the District of Columbia was listed as being most windy; feel free to insert your own thought on that.) Any open range or crop fire can easily travel 20-30 mph and more.

You won’t typically see a three-foot handline being dug out in the grassy open ranges or a straw stubble field in the Great Plains. What you might see is the local farmers using their tractors and field equipment to dig a 40- or 50-foot fire break to help the local volunteer fire departments contain a field fire. (Do you suppose the FEMA Assistance to Firefighters Grant would consider a tractor and disc a wildland apparatus? Maybe next year.)

One of the dangers of battling range and field fires is the vehicle speeds that are sometimes necessary while travelling across uneven and unknown terrain. Once close access to the fire is achieved, many local apparatus have outside riding locations for firefighters to stand or sit while extinguishing a fire with a small hose or hose reel. When possible, it is done in tandem with a second truck to assure initial knockdown. Knowing the common practice, the advent of bumper turrets and safety measures by wildland apparatus manufactures have reduced the jeopardies of the tactics.

When travelling outside my normal coverage area, whether providing mutual aid for wildland or structural incidents, I put initial trust in the home agency’s knowledge and tactical plan. Offensive, defensive, exposure coverage, let it burn, and cut it off at the pass.

We all want to safely fight fires. After all, that’s why we joined the fire service, right?

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) has many wildland training opportunities geared for the forestry fire operation. The implementation of that basic level wildland knowledge is the same everywhere, just like in structural firefighter I & II essentials. The NVFC committee will be working to gather common training for future consideration of developing and integrating more range and field fire training opportunities in the NWCG training curriculum or certifications.

What about fire prevention in the wildland-urban interface (WUI)? No matter what state you live in, the fact is that the number of people living out among Mother Nature or nearer to natural areas is forever increasing. Whether it is a cabin by the lake or in the woods, a house on a hill, a home on the range, or the expanding city limits, there might just be something you can do to help yourself as a homeowner and to help your fire department.

Tips for the WUI Engine

Initial Attack in the Wildland Urban Interface

Forewarned Is Forearmed: Preparing for Fire Weather in the WUI

The U.S. Forest Service and the NVFC have developed the Wildland Fire Assessment Program (WFAP) to assist fire department volunteers in evaluating homes in the WUI and educating owners on simple fire prevention and mitigation measures on their property. The concept is not new. The useful thing about it is, it works anywhere – both in the wildland and inside the city limits.

The WFAP provides free training and a checklist for fire departments to guide property owners around their property and see what they can do to better protect their home from fire. It covers things like tree and grass growth, leaf build-up, patio cushions, firewood stacks next to a building, escape or evacuation plans, and more simple items anyone can do. Access the WFAP resources at www.nvfc.org/wfap.  

Keeping our customers and ourselves safe is what we should all strive for every day, no matter where you are from. That’s the best “good TV” to me.

My motto for team accomplishment: Leave your ego at the door. Trust your training and your crew. Pass it along. We’re all in this together.

Charlie Kludt is a station captain, EMT-B, and fire prevention officer at Joe Foss Field in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and firefighter and training officer for the Viborg (SD) Volunteer Fire Department. He has 30 years of fire and EMT service. He serves as president of the SD Firefighters Association, is a director on the National Volunteer Fire Council, and is a member of the SD Local Assistance State Team.

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