Communication during wildfire incidents

Frequent and effective communication between response organizations and individuals is critical to ensuring the most effective response during wildfire incidents.

Above: Incident Command Post at the Eiler Fire, August 8, 2014 at Anderson, California. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Most of the detailed reports I have seen about critical incidents identified communication as an area that needed improvement.

In a recent study, researchers analyzed the influence of pre-incident familiarity, stakeholder affiliation, and primary wildfire response/functional role on communication frequency and efficacy during three western U.S. wildfires ignited on U.S. Forest Service land. All fires occurred in wildland/urban interface areas, and involved a range of parties including Type 1 Incident Management Team response teams, local forest leaders, and responding agencies. 

Below is an excerpt from the research.

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“…Since wildfires are one of the most common disasters faced by communities in the U.S., understanding factors contributing to effective disaster response is key to improving response efforts. Effectiveness of disaster response is strongly impacted by the effectiveness of communication between individual responders during the incident. This research shows that mechanisms that establish relationships between disaster responders prior to wildfire incidents may increase communication between responders during wildfire incidents, and thus, reduce problematic communication and increase the effectiveness of disaster response.

Pre-incident relationship building may serve to strengthen understanding and increase mutual trust between responders. This suggests that community efforts to increase social contact between responders prior to incident can lead to benefits during disaster events by increasing the frequency and effectiveness of communication between individual responders.

This research also suggests that it can be problematic to assume that individuals with shared institutional roles will have more effective communication.

The least effective communication reported in this study was between individuals with similar institutional roles but no pre-incident familiarity.

A potential explanation for this trend is that individuals that share similar roles and/or stakeholder groups may be more likely to make assumptions about the other person’s approach to, or understanding of, a given situation, leading to false expectations and misunderstandings.

This suggests that to reduce problematic communication, responders who lack familiarity with each other must emphasize clear communication and refrain from making assumptions about the other person’s knowledge or strategy, regardless of how similar their institutional roles are…”

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The information above is based on the following article: Nowell, B., & Steelman, T. 2015. Communication under Fire: The Role of Embeddedness in the Emergence and Efficacy of Disaster Response Communication Networks. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 25 (3): 929-952. doi: 10.1093/jopart/muu021.

RIP Dr. Fischbeck

Dr. George Fischbeck, a legendary meteorologist, passed away last year. When I worked in southern California many of us would watch Dr. George’s weather presentation on ABC7 news every chance we had. He was very knowledgeable, fun to watch, and introduced many viewers to the fine art and science of weather observation and forecasting.

Dr. George Fischbeck

Red Flag Warnings in the Southwest, March 30, 2016.

wildfire Red Flag map 3-30-2016

The National Weather Service has issued Red Flag Warnings for areas in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico for Wednesday afternoon into the evening. In some areas the winds will gust at 35 to 40 mph and relative humidities will be in the single digits or teens..

Wildfire danger map 3-30-2016

The maps were current as of 8:50 a.m. MDT on Wednesday. Red Flag Warnings can change throughout the day as the National Weather Service offices around the country update and revise their forecasts and maps. For the most current data visit thisNWS site.

Trinidad firefighter dies of burns suffered on wildfire

Forest ranger Keith Campbell succumbed to burn injuries sustained while fighting a wildfire along Lady Chancellor Hill, Port-of-Spain, on Friday afternoon, March 25.

Keith Campbell was a forester III in the Forestry Division of the Ministry of Agriculture, Land and Fisheries in Trinidad (map). He became trapped in the fire after a change in wind direction caused the fire to spread rapidly around the firefighters. He died Friday night hours after sustaining third degree burns to 90 percent of his body.

Keith Campbell
Keith Campbell

Mr. Campbell and three other injured firefighters were rushed to the hospital where Mr. Campbell was admitted in critical condition. Of the other three, one has been released from the hospital, a second should be released soon, while the third remains hospitalized after suffering severe burns on his stomach and upper leg

Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat announced via social media that Mr. Campbell passed away around 11:45 on Friday night.

Mr. Rambharat said Mr. Campbell had received news of his mother’s death shortly before going to battle the blaze on Friday, but had decided to finish work with his team before going home.

Below are excerpts from an article at TriniBuzz:

…Co-worker Kishan Ramcharan, a Forester I, who worked with Campbell in the division since 2003, described the event as “a complete horror.”

He said Campbell remained in the raging fire for close to 30 minutes as he and other workers looked on in tears, unable to help.

Ramcharan said, “I never experienced anything so devastating and terrifying in my life.” He said Campbell was well-experienced in fighting fires and had a wealth of knowledge of fires habits and how fires operated in specific types of terrains.

He said, Keith was more or less on supervision duties but “everyone lends a helping hand in trying to suppress fires.” They arrived on the scene around 1 pm and conducted a fire assessment but decided it was best to wait on the Fire Service.

On realizing the fire had somewhat cooled down, they ventured in “since nothing was burning as much.” It was Campbell who went in first, equipped with full safety gear and a backpack water pump. Ramcharan said he then went in with his fire rake which Campbell advised him to use. Campbell was about 100 meters away and in his sight. Bain was also inside the forest. But as fate would have it, the winds intensified and it was suddenly “a furnace of fire blazing.”

Ramcharan said, “From a distance, the fire was raging from the valley and our drivers on the hills started screaming, get out! get out!”

He used the fire rake to pull himself out of the precipice and when he got to the top, he saw Bain badly burnt and screamed out for Campbell who was trapped. Satram then arrived on the scene and was joined by Carrington and Duprey who attempted to head down and await rescue from the Fire Service and ambulance who arrived ten minutes later.

Ramcharan said, “I was in a state of shock and disbelief. When they finally got to Campbell and I saw him, he was moving his head just a bit.”

He said Campbell was a dynamic human being with a range of skills and one of the best officers he had worked with.

Our sincere condolences go out to the friends, co-workers, and family of Mr. Campbell. And we hope for a speedy recovery for the three injured firefighters.

Wildland firefighting, explained

Oregon Public Broadcasting and Earthfix produced this three-minute video explaining how wildland fires are suppressed. It could be very useful for telling the uninitiated in very general terms how firefighters put out wildfires. It’s mostly accurate, but it would be possible to nitpick here and there. For example it highlights hot shot crews as the primary initial attack resource without mentioning engines.

Red Flag Warnings in six states, March 29, 2016

wild Fire weather 3-29-2016

The National Weather Service has issued Red Flag Warnings or Fire Weather Watches for areas in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. On the map below, the red areas are Warnings, while the yellow represents a Watch.

wild Fire weather 3-29-2016

The maps were current as of 9:10 a.m. MDT on Tuesday. Red Flag Warnings can change throughout the day as the National Weather Service offices around the country update and revise their forecasts and maps. For the most current data visit this NWS site.