WUI incident near miss: Crew narrowly escapes burnover

Wildland/urban interface hazards and how to train for them

In a recent poll, the FireRescue1.com community weighed in on the question, “Has your department prepared for an increased risk of wildfires?” One-quarter of respondents answered, “No, but it should be a priority,” highlighting the need for additional training. And more than half of respondents answered, “No, it’s not an issue here.” While there are some metropolitan areas in which WUI fire risks do not apply, Fire Chiefs Mark Novak and Craig Daugherty stress that there are few places truly immune from wildland fire.

By Andrew Beck

You are called to assist a neighboring mutual-aid department with a wildland fire. It’s a fair distance away, and you don’t routinely work in the area.

You respond with your crew and arrive at the assigned location. You are quickly briefed and given radio channel information and a location and point of contact. Your assignment will be to assist with structure protection in a small development ahead of a large fire burning in grass and brush.

Planning is a pivotal factor for working in WUI environments.
Planning is a pivotal factor for working in WUI environments. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

You head to the assigned spot and find your point of contact. You also find a one-way road leading out of a neighborhood filled with smoke and very panicked residents. The main job is to start to try to put in some hoselays and develop a plan to protect the homes in the area. On top of that, law enforcement is trying to affect an orderly evacuation, and aircraft are operating nearby trying to protect and pre-treat the fuels near the development. You start to get nervous and realize that this will not be a simple mutual-aid call to mop up a grass fire.

WUI incident near miss: Crew narrowly escapes burnover

Wildland/urban interface (WUI) fires can be chaotic and dynamic events. By definition, it involves protecting and operating in that area where the wildland fire environment meets the structural environment. This can mean resources that are specialized for only one of the disciplines are operating nearby one another and will have to work together to maximize each other’s strengths and weaknesses. This can be especially true if your agency doesn’t routinely respond in this kind of environment, or if you are responding with mutual-aid agencies.

A Near-Miss Report from the Firefighter Near Miss Reporting System illustrates this point:

“I worked as part of an engine crew for the U.S. Fire Service (USFS). We were doing structure protection in a flat rural area. The wind was blowing significantly, and we were assigned to protect some structures and hold the main fire at the road. The fire was heading directly toward us and was frequently spotting in front of the main fire line. When it hit our location, our crew tried to protect several structures and vehicles. The flame front jumped the road, and our captain ordered us to begin a progressive hoseline on the fire with him on the nozzle. There were several spot fires around us, and our hoselay was eventually burned up. We were forced to jump in the engine and retreat. We left the area and moved to another location to protect some other structures that were being threatened.”

Read the entire Near-Miss Report, “Wildland fire endangers crew.”

WUI hazards and “watch out situations”

There are several WUI “watch out situations” noted in the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s Incident Response Pocket Guide. These effectively identify some of the hazards that exist in the WUI environment:

  • Poor access and narrow roads limiting ingress and egress
  • Bridge weight limits and presence of septic tanks or cisterns
  • Inadequate water supplies
  • Fuels or steep terrain located close to homes, with little defensible space
  • Propane or fuel tanks and powerlines
  • Local residents attempting suppression

These factors all intertwine to illustrate the unique challenges of this environment. Additionally, these challenges create the need for advanced coordination among departments.  

Structural fire departments are set up primarily for interior firefighting, and this is generally a stationary, water-dependent task. Wildland agencies and apparatus carry less water, being optimized for wildland fires. This can be a more mobile type of attack, and often relies less on water and more on firelines and fuel breaks. It doesn’t mean they can’t operate in each other’s sandbox, just that it may take some coordination.

While a structure engine may not have the access or steady water supply to start to attempt an interior attack on involved structures doesn’t mean it’s not of value. Using the large water tanks, and crews familiar with structural firefighting, can mean that homes that are affected by the fire on the exterior can be quickly put out. A wildland apparatus may be able to access areas between and around houses to suppress fire as it approaches or create more defensible space by using a burnout operation to limit fuels between the main fire and the structures. They can potentially utilize the larger water supply provided by the structural apparatus. Make sure the structural apparatus can have a planned escape route, do not overload bridges, and everyone has a clear plan of when it’s time to leave.

Residents who are in the process of evacuating can also create a chaotic environment. Residents may also be attempting to take large animals, such as horses, that are commonly present in these types of neighborhoods. This can create additional traffic issues for responders to handle. Residents might also refuse to leave and attempt to fight the fire themselves.

Your WUI training plan

Planning is a pivotal factor for working in WUI environments. Studying near-miss reports, then using them to script situations in a tabletop with multiple agencies can go a long way toward coming up with a plan. These discussions can at least help everyone see the incident through the other agency’s eyes, and make sure the first time you meet isn’t at the end of a dark, smoky road leading to a WUI assignment you won’t soon forget.

Before your next wildland-focused training session, assign your members to read the full near-miss report above. Then discuss the following three questions:

  1. Do we have any WUI areas in our response area?
  2. Who else would respond with us?
  3. How would we set up resources in a WUI area to allow for rapid fire behavior changes or evacuation?

Following the initial discussion, engage in the following three training activities to help prepare your crew for the unique challenges posed by these dynamic events:

  1. Practice progressive hoselays, focusing on being able to be mobile, and deal with system failures (hose burn-through, etc).
  2. Go to a WUI area and talk through how you would place resources to combat different fire situations.
  3. Bring together agencies that might respond into that area, and conduct a tabletop incident to work through how a response would go, and identify any sticking points you can work on.

WUI resources

The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) has put together several tools to help fire departments plan and prepare for large-scale wildland events. The IAFC also coordinates annual Wildland Urban Interface conference, which offers hands-on training and interactive sessions designed to address the challenges of wildland fire.

The IAFC’s Firefighter Near Miss Reporting System was founded to provide a system to collect and disseminate these near-miss stories. They were entered by responders across the globe who wanted to share their stories and allow fellow responders to learn their lessons. Take a minute to review WUI-related reports to help prepare your agency for the unique challenges posed by these dynamic events.

About the Author

Andrew Beck has been a member of the program staff for the IAFC’s Firefighter Near Miss Reporting System since 2015 as an instructor, reviewer and subject-matter expert. Beck started his fire service career in 2002 with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, working in wildland fire operations. He then worked in wildland fire for the U.S. Forest Service from 2003 to 2006, when he transitioned to structural fire with the Mandan City (ND) Fire Department. He is currently the training officer, managing department training programs and live-burn operations. Beck teaches thermal imaging at various regional fire schools and is a live-fire instructor for the state firefighter’s association.

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