WUI Fires: Some Tactics and Lessons Learned

The 2018 fire season has been very active so far here in the Southwest. With that, I thought I would review some tactics and lessons learned so far this year. What follow are a review and suggestions only. As always, refer to your local policy and standard operating guidelines (SOGs). We will be reviewing size-up, critical decision points, and some brief tactical plans.

A helicopter drop on the Fritch Fire supports the efforts of the ground force.

(1) A helicopter drop on the Fritch Fire supports the efforts of the ground force. (Photos by author.)

Every call begins with a size-up, whether it’s on the radio or mental. When arriving on the scene of a wildland/wildland urban interface (WUI) incident, consider the following:

  • What do I see (fast-moving fire, big fire, heavy smoke)?
  • Where is it going (toward homes, rough terrain, open areas)?
  • Can I stop it (right now or later)?

These three points are a part of what drives your tactics. The main issue here is, how aggressive can you be after having provided for safety first (photo 1)? The major decision point is “offensive vs. defensive.” You are committing to something either way.

Base All Actions on Fire Behavior

Base your tactical model on current and expected fire behavior. To gauge fire behavior, you must have a good grasp of the fuel, weather, and topography—the primary influences on fire behavior.

Fuel. Depending on where you are in the United States, your predominant fuel type will be subject to environmental swings. Here in the Southwest/Great Plains, our one-hour fuels are light and flashy. The rate of fire spread can be extremely rapid. On our Southern Plains event days, we have seen flame fronts moving at 30 to 40 miles per hour. It is difficult to grasp that until you are speeding down a country road trying to catch up to the head fire. Thicker fuels are more resistant to those “swings”; but once the moisture content becomes critically low, the energy released by larger fuels is phenomenal. Be wary of and alert to the fuels in your area.

Weather. Check the weather on every shift, especially during the warmer months. Lack of moisture or an excessive number of days of high heat affects fuels, the rate of fire spread, and you physically. Be hydrated: This is a force multiplier when battling summer fires. If you are well hydrated, you will not fatigue quickly. Monitor wind speeds and possible storm fronts. Remember that wind will override other factors like temperature and relative humidity.

Your fire department should have tactics for complex fires and a record of areas that have presented problems in the past and those that have been plowed, forested, or even burned lately.

In addition, be aware of what my friend Brandon Woodward calls “micro-weather,” usually winds generated by convection currents carried through unburned areas. The winds are variable and unpredictable because of the fire front moving across the terrain and generating energy. It can also be influenced by suppression efforts. You must be aware of your surroundings AT ALL TIMES. Situational awareness is key in safety and suppression; they go together.

Topography/terrain. When working outside your normal response area, be wary of the terrain. The readily available Web-based mapping (like Google) shows satellite views. This is critical in identifying choke points, ravines, bodies of water, and structures in the path of the fire front. Together with on-site intel, you can more readily determine the path of your fire front and what is most at risk.

Tactics

It’s now time to make a decision: Should you go offensive or defensive? The following are only three of the basic tactics used. This is just another “tool in the toolbox” moment. Again, refer to your local SOGs and training. Whatever you decide to do this season, stay informed of your weather and available resources.

Bump and Run. Reminder: This is not a passive tactic. It relies on hose-handling skills and being highly mobile. Always position apparatus in the direction of travel—do not pull hose into structures. If you are protecting two or more structures, position the lines on the leeward side of the structure, which will allow you to use the structure as a fire “shield” (photo 2).

A firefighter is positioned with a hose to perform the “bump and run” tactic. Note that he is in full personal protective equipment.

(2) A firefighter is positioned with a hose to perform the “bump and run” tactic. Note that he is in full personal protective equipment.

Also remember that you are applying water only to keep fire off the structure. Do not attempt to extinguish the fire front. Once the front has moved past, extinguish hot spots near the structure. Move quickly to reload your hose; a butterfly load works well for a forestry line. Then, quickly bump ahead to structures ahead of the fire front. The goal here is strictly structural protection. This is a preferred tactic in WUI where greenbelts back up to home sites (photo 3). This tactic is most effective if two or three engines are involved. You can use this tactic as a single company; however, do not commit yourself to structures that cannot be saved because of the prep that needs to be done. This is all about being mobile and saving as many structures as possible. Always be aware of the life safety hazards for residents trying to move to safer areas. This can result in possible collisions and civilian casualties.

A house in the wildland urban interface area. Note the high fuel load that is commonly associated with greenbelt areas.

(3) A house in the wildland urban interface area. Note the high fuel load that is commonly associated with greenbelt areas.

“Go Long.” This is strictly a defensive tactic used in extreme fire behavior/fire weather. High-wind conditions, drought-stricken fuel, and large open areas directly influence extreme fire behavior. It is important to realize that the 300 to 400 gallons on your Type 6 is not enough of a difference maker (photo 4).

I am at the Lake McClellan Fire calling in air support on two structures. The flame heights are more than 20 feet, and the winds are 30 to 49 miles per hour.

(4) I am at the Lake McClellan Fire calling in air support on two structures. The flame heights are more than 20 feet, and the winds are 30 to 49 miles per hour.

Calculate/estimate the rate of spread, which directly influences which areas must be evacuated first, and identify a “choke point.” The primary goal is to “reset the fire” until additional resources arrive.

This is not a recommended tactic in areas with ravines, deep valleys, or rough terrain. It is still a highly mobile tactic. Identify the geographical features that can act as barriers to hold the fire on two sides. This area must be well in front of the head fire so that you have time to reinforce that position. Firing operations using aerial assets when available are accepted practices. If you have county or private heavy equipment access, use it to reinforce the fire line.

Brush 46 (PCESD1) working with a motor grader to clear and level the ground for structural protection.

(5) Brush 46 (PCESD1) working with a motor grader to clear and level the ground for structural protection.

Think outside the box on resource appropriation. We found a local farmer with a bulldozer who was willing to protect his and his neighbors’ property. Fire is a big motivator for some people.

Use all means to reinforce that “choke point.” Remove as much fuel before the fire front arrives (photo 5). Identify proper-sized safe zones for yourself, volunteers, and random public members. This is a must-do when waiting on approaching fire.

Indirect/direct attack. You can mount a “transitional” attack. The only difference between a structural transitional attack and a WUI transitional attack is that water is applied outdoors instead of into a structure. The main goal is to “reset the fire” until additional resources arrive. This is a good tactic when you have open terrain, good visibility, and a good “black” area. Do not attempt a frontal assault. Approach the fire front only from the black area and the rear. Again, this is an attempt to “reset” the fire only. Make one pass using as many gallons per minute on the fire front as possible. Reserve at least one-quarter of a tank of water. Once you have made that pass, remount the apparatus and refill your tank.

Additional forces arriving can then help anchor, pinch, and roll up with you. In extreme fire behavior, this is a better tactic. You are in less danger in the black, but it still is firefighting. Allowing the fire front to continue growing unabated is not conducive to firefighter or public safety. This tactic is also good for single-resource attacks when resources are scarce. We use it often in the north and western parts of Texas. This is not a recommended tactic in areas with ravines, deep valleys, or rough terrain. Call for resources early; you can always send people home.

Safety Message

And now for the required safety message … we do this on every single briefing when out on assignment. When operating in “rough” terrain, it is always a challenge if a team member has a medical emergency. There may be difficulties in communications and moving equipment or firefighters over rough ground. Emotions will run high. Treat this event as you would a Mayday on the fireground. Focus on the small tasks—clearing a helipad, doing your emergency medical services skills, being your best version of a company officer. These are just a few of the skills needed at an event like this. No task is small in this situation; all tasks have a bearing on successfully evacuating a fellow firefighter.

If you have not reviewed your Incident Response Pocket Guide or WUI watch-outs, take the time to review them. Practice those size-ups, and don’t assume that the fire is always going to do what you want it to do. Mr. Murphy is always waiting for a chance.

Weatherford Fire Department Firefighter Andy Loller

Author’s note: On June 10, 2018, Strike Team 137 from the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex was on deployment with the Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System. One of our team members, Weatherford Fire Department Firefighter Andy Loller, suffered a “medical emergency.” After being successfully evacuated, Andy succumbed while en route by air medical to Odessa, Texas. This article is dedicated to Andy, whose can-do spirit, overall work ethic, and genuinely infectious attitude will be missed.


Steve Green is a 25-plus year veteran in the fire/EMS service. He is a TCFP master firefighter and an instructor III-master and a former FTO and training officer. He is a lieutenant at Station 37 with Parker County (TX) ESD1 and the TIFMAS coordinator. He is an adjunct instructor for Tarrant County (TX) College at the Fire Service Training Center and a member of the ISFSI Curriculum Development Committee for 2018.

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