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FireRescue1 tips special: Wildland firefighting

Editor's note: The following tips are from the Federal Fire and Aviation Safety Team. For more wildfire and general firefighting tips, check out FireRescue1's extensive tips section.

Fire shelter site selection
The primary objective of every operational fire plan is to keep firefighters out of an entrapment situation. However, firefighters must always be prepared for the possibility of having to deploy their fire shelters. The key to a successful fire shelter deployment is proper site selection. Consider the following when discussing shelter deployment site selection:  

  • Pick a site that will keep the fire shelter away from flames and convective heat. It should also limit the amount of radiant heat that reaches the shelter.
  • Select an area with no fuels, or if that isn't possible, select a site in light fuels such as grass where the flaming front passes quickly. Clear the site to mineral soil if at all possible. If time is critical, pick a site with the least fuel.
  • Pick natural firebreaks (e.g., wet meadows; creek beds; wet, swampy areas; large rockslides with no fuels). Note that rough terrain in rockslides may make obtaining an effective seal impossible, thus making the site unacceptable.
  • Areas on the lee side of ridge tops and knobs can be effective deployment sites because convective heat and flames will generally continue rising above them.
  • Wide areas that have been cleared of fuel such as dozer lines or roads can be effective deployment sites. In larger areas, don't let trucks, dozers, and other equipment occupy the best deployment sites.
  • Flat areas on slopes, such as benches or road cuts, offer some protection from radiant and convective heat. Level areas like these can keep you below the path of flames and convective heat. The ditch on the inside of the road, if free of fuel, can improve the effectiveness of deploying in a road cut. 
  • Avoid areas that tend to funnel smoke, flames, and hot gases. These include narrow draws, chutes, chimneys, and saddles on ridge tops.
  • Know how long it takes to reach your safety zone. Crew supervisors should identify and communicate likely escape routes and safety zones.

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Instructions and assignments not clear
Every firefighter will give and receive briefings at some point on the job. Briefings are an effective way to disseminate information that can make the firefighters job safer and easier. When giving a briefing, it is important to keep the following questions in mind and remain perceptive to how the audience is receiving the information: 

  • Did they ask questions? Talk about what it is like giving a briefing. Do you get empty stares? What feedback are you looking for to ensure they understand you?
  • Did they take notes? What kind of information would you like to see people write down?
  • Did they repeat information back? What other ways can you identify that your briefing is registering?
  • Did you give all the necessary information? How will you ensure that you covered everything necessary? Task, location, communications, hazards, etc. 

It is also important for the firefighter who is receiving instructions to be mindful of the following during the briefing:

  • Did you really listen? What do you do to make yourself pay attention to everything being said?
  • Did you understand the assignment, location, and the nature and location of hazards?
  • Do you expect to figure it out for yourself when you get out there or do you step forward and ask questions?  

To reduce the risks, take the time and get it right! You must know the location of the assignment and:

  • What is to be done.
  • Who you are to report to and how often to report.
  • When you are expected to complete the assignment.
  • Hazards.
  • Communication plan frequencies.
  • Weather and fire behavior.
  • Status of adjoining forces. 

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Wildland/urban interface Structure protection
The primary consideration of any operation is to assure firefighter and public safety. It is a must to assess potential fire behavior, ingress/egress routes, nature of the threat, hazardous materials, and available water supplies before engaging in the protection of any structure.
 
 Factors that may make an attempt to save a structure hopeless or too dangerous include:

  • The fire is making a sustained run and there is little or no clearance between the structure and the fuel.
  • The fire behavior is extreme; spot fires are numerous and the spread is outpacing containment.
  • Water supply will not last as long as the threat of the fire.
  • The fire's intensity dictates that you leave the fire area immediately.
  • The structure is constructed of wood and has a wood, shake roof.
  • The roof of the structure is more than one-quarter involved.
  • There is fire inside of the structure or windows are broken and there is no way to quickly repair them.
  • You can't safely remain at the structure because your escape route could become unusable. 

When implementing a plan to protect structures, consider the following:

  • Don't enter a burning structure unless you are trained, equipped, and authorized. Firefighter safety and survival is the number one priority.
  • Always stay mobile and wear all of your PPE.
  • Back in equipment to allow for a quick escape.
  • Coil a short, 1 ½", charged line with fog nozzle on your engine for safety and quick knock down capability.
  • Don't make long hose lays. Keep at least 100 gallons of water reserve in your tank.
  • Check the road system before the fire approaches. Know bridge limits, alternate access routes, and turnarounds for your vehicle and other support vehicles.
  • Determine if residents are home. Leave on the inside and outside lights, regardless of the time of day. Close the garage door.
  • Place the owner's ladder at a corner of the home on the side with the least fire threat. 
  • Check and mark hazmat; e.g., LPG, pesticides, and paint storage. 

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Smoke exposure
Exposure to smoke during fire operations can be a significant safety concern. Research has shown that smoke exposure on prescribed fires, especially in the holding and ignition positions, often exceeds that on wildfires. There are many precautions that can be taken to reduce personnel exposure to smoke. 
 
Planning: Smoke exposure needs to be considered when planning suppression tactics and prescribed fires. Simple actions can mitigate smoke exposures, such as:

  • Altering line locations can have a significant impact on smoke exposure.
  • Placing firelines in areas of lighter fuels or moving lines to roads or other barriers that will require less holding, patrol and mopup will significantly reduce the smoke exposure to personnel.
  • Use flanking attack as opposed to head attack (where appropriate) in heavy smoke situations.
  • Check fire behavior forecasts for smoke and inversion potential.
  • In heavy smoke, give up acres to gain control. 

Implementation: Many techniques can help reduce the exposure of personnel to heavy smoke, such as:

  • Rotating people out of the heaviest smoke area may be the single most effective method.
  • Locate camps and incident command posts in areas that are not prone to inversions.
  • Minimize snag falling, consistent with safety concerns, to avoid putting heavy fuels on the ground that will require mopup.
  • Changing firing patterns and preburning (black lining) during less severe conditions can greatly reduce exposure to smoke.
  • The use of retardant, foam or sprinklers can also significantly reduce the workload and exposure time for holding crews.  

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Tips courtesy of the Federal Fire and Aviation Safety Team.




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