Hero complex

Photo by Bill Gabbert

Photo by Bill Gabbert

Structural firefighters occasionally find themselves in a position where a victim is in a dangerous situation and is need of rescue. This can involve an element of risk for the firefighters who have to evaluate the pros and cons of rescuing the victim versus the the risk they would take.

Firefighters on a wildland fire almost never encounter a situation that would REQUIRE them to take a serious risk in order to accomplish an important objective of managing the fire.

An article in the Texas Observer looks at what may motivate firefighters to take unnecessary risks, sometimes ending in fatalities. Below is an excerpt from the article.

…There’s a saying in the fire service: risk a lot to save a lot, risk a little to save a little, and risk nothing to save nothing. When Houston firefighters entered the abandoned crack house that February morning in 2005, they didn’t do so with the intention of saving lives; they knew the house was empty, so the objective was solely to extinguish the fire. Abandoned houses are particularly precarious, and firefighters described the building as “heavily involved” in flames. Therefore, the report concludes, fighting the fire from the outside—what the fire service calls a “defensive attack”—would have been more effective and could have spared Burke’s life.

The report highlights a little-known problem: In their desire to save lives and property, to be a hero, firefighters sometimes rush into buildings when restraint is called for. It’s a problem that some fire chiefs and the state fire marshal are trying to address following one of the deadliest years for firefighters in Texas history.

There’s an idea of heroism that often colors firefighters’ perceptions of the job. It’s the Hollywood image: the fearless firefighter diving into a burning building and emerging with a child slung over a shoulder. Soon after graduating from the academy, firefighters realize those incidents are actually unusual and that the job more often involves handling mundane assignments and smaller fires. The rare large blazes become their chance to be the heroes they believe they’re expected to be—and some take disproportionate risks to earn the reputation.

Fire departments favor aggressive candidates who aren’t afraid of the myriad hazards the job poses. The tendency to hire strong-willed alpha males—as most firefighters describe themselves and each other—into an aggressive and stubborn culture can be a deadly combination…


Wildfire briefing, March 30, 2014

Prescribed fire smoke in Manhattan, Kansas

Prescribed fire smoke in Manhattan, Kansas, March 29, 2014. Photo by Eric Ward.

Prescribed fire smoke in the Flint Hills

In light of the discussion on Wildfire Today about prescribed fire as a tourist attraction in the Flint Hills of Kansas, Eric Ward sent us the above photo that he took Saturday afternoon in smoky Manhattan, Kansas. He explained that many of the ranchers in the area conduct extensive burning projects this time of the year in order to enhance weight gains of cattle if they plan to stock pastures in May. On days when the relative humidity and wind speed are within an acceptable range, the evidence of the burning is very visible in the atmosphere, especially if weather for the previous week or so has been bouncing between snow and red flag weather conditions, as it has this year.

Colorado report recommends contracting for air tankers and helicopters

Colorado Firefighting Air CorpsA long-awaited report about aerial firefighting by state agencies in Colorado was released Friday by the Colorado Firefighting Air Corps (CFAC). Some of the more significant recommendations include:

  • Increase the number of Single Engine Air Tankers (SEAT) on exclusive use contracts from two to four.
  • Contract for the exclusive use of four Type 3 or larger rotor-wing aircraft. (Type 3 helicopters can carry 100 to 300 gallons.)
  • Contract for the exclusive use of two Type 2 or larger air tankers. (Type 2 air tankers can carry 1,800 to 3,000 gallons). The contingency, if the State is unable to contract for two air tankers, is to contract for two helitankers, or a combination of one fixed-wing air tanker and one helitanker.

More details are at Fire Aviation.

Arizona seeks to immunize the state from liability from wildfires

A bill that was approved unanimously Tuesday by the Arizona Senate Appropriations Committee, House Bill 2343, would exempt the state and state employees from prosecution for harm resulting from the action, or inaction by state employees on state lands. Hundreds of millions of dollars in claims have been filed by the families of the 19 firefighters killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire and by property owners whose homes burned. The fire was managed by the state of Arizona in June, 2013.

Firefighters assisting with Oso landslide

Personnel that usually can be found at wildfires are helping to manage the response to the tragic landslide at Oso, Washington. We have reports that some of the resources assisting include Washington Incident Management Team #4 (a Type 2 team), miscellaneous overhead, and some Washington Department of Natural Resources chain saw teams. The IMTeam was dispatched on March 27.

New topic from “Safety Matters”

The “Safety Matters” group has released their “Topic #5″, and they are seeking input from wildland firefighters. Below is an excerpt:

…2014 marks the 20th Anniversary of South Canyon and the 38th Anniversary of Battlement Creek. Both fires fit the model of firefighters dying in a brush fuel type, on a slope, during hot and dry conditions.

The loss of the Granite Mountain Hotshots indicates that a significant accident occurs every 18 to 20 years. Is there a reoccurring cycle, and if so why? Could it be related to a cyclic turnover of firefighter culture, training and attitude? What are the thoughts of Safety Matters readers?

Bushfire season ends in New South Wales

The bushfire season has reached its official end in New South Wales.

Tribute to author Norman Maclean

The Daily Beast has reprinted an excellent essay that Pete Dexter wrote for Esquire in 1981 about Norman Maclean. It explores a side of of the author that is not revealed in his book about firefighters, Young Men and Fire. Mr. Dexter spent quite a bit of time with Mr. Maclean, who at that time was writing the final chapter. Mr. Maclean also wrote A River Runs Through It, which was made into a movie starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt. The Esperanza Fire, a book written by his son John N. Maclean, is working its way towards becoming a movie.

U.S. National Guard assists with fire in Puerto Rico

From the AP:

Puerto Rico has enlisted the U.S. National Guard to help extinguish a fire that has ravaged a forest in the island’s central region. Firefighting Chief Angel Crespo says that about 40 percent of the Modelo Forest in the town of Adjuntas has been destroyed. Authorities say they believe the fire was intentionally set and that it has consumed up to 290 acres (117 hectares). A U.S. National Guard helicopter helped dump water over the area on Friday.

Fantastic photo


Firefighters — Don’t squander the early morning hours

night firefighting

Barry Koncinsky running a chain saw with the El Cariso Hotshots in 1971. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The folks at the National Interagency Fire Center have produced a video titled WFSTAR: An Analysis of Burnovers. They do not tell us what “WFSTAR” stands for, but our best guess is Wildland Fire Safety Training Annual Refresher.

The video presents findings from an analysis of fatalities on wildland fires. One of the more interesting pieces of information was the time of day that many of the fatalities occurred.

Time of fatal burnovers on wildland fires

Sixteen of the burnover incidents occurred during a two hour period, between 1448 and 1642. The blowups that led to the fatalities occurred an average of 24 minutes earlier.

Experienced firefighters know that large fires are typically most active in the mid-afternoon. Solar heating has reached it’s peak. The ground, vegetation, and air are as hot as they will be all day. It is not uncommon for firefighters to have to pull back and abandon what they were doing in the afternoon and retreat to a safety zone because the fire threatens to overrun their position. Firelines painstakingly constructed can be lost. It is the hottest part of the day, sapping the energy of personnel and reducing their production while putting them at risk of heat-related injuries.

All of those factors can result in firefighters being least productive in the mid-afternoon. But if they are exhausted or hunkered down in a safety zone at 1500, what was going on at 0500? On some fires most everyone would still be asleep, or maybe slowly moving around looking for a cup of coffee, or standing in a chow line. At the same time out on the fireline, typically the fire would also be moving at a very slow pace. The ground, vegetation, and air are as cool as they will be all day. The relative humidity and the fine fuel moistures are at their peaks. This is the perfect time to take advantage of decreased fire behavior. The cooler conditions are better for the personnel, who can be more productive, and they will have the advantage over the slower moving fire — the opposite of what happens in mid-afternoon.

Don’t squander the early morning hours.

Sometimes firefighters do not arrive at their work assignment on the fireline until mid to late morning. They may have squandered the time of day when the working conditions and the fire behavior were best suited for productive, safe work.

Incident Commanders and Incident Management Teams need to change their thinking on this. Firefighters should ARRIVE at their fireline assignment 30 minutes before sunrise.

For example, in July in Prescott, Arizona sunrise is at about 0530. The schedule for the day operational period could be something like this:

0230 or 0300 – Firefighters get up and eat breakfast
0330 – Briefing (lasting no more than 30 minutes)
0400 – Begin travel to fireline (assume one hour; it can be longer)
0500 – Firefighters arrive at their fireline assignment; helicopters can begin flying troops in if needed, air tankers can fly.
0530 – Sunrise
1630 to 1930 – off the clock back at fire camp

With this schedule firefighters could accomplish up to nine hours of actual fire suppression work before the least productive and most dangerous period of the day begins at 1400, compared to three to six hours with a typical schedule.

Fighting fire at night

The schedule above assumes that the fire managers, for whatever reason, have an aversion to fighting fire at night. In the last one to two decades, there have been fewer incident management teams willing to commit firefighters to the fireline after sunset. There can be good reasons for this, such as steep terrain with rolling rocks and logs that can difficult to see and avoid during darkness, or falling snags could be a serious hazard. But if these or other dangerous conditions do not exist, fire managers should consider that firefighters can frequently gain more ground when environmental conditions are better for working, and the fire is moving more slowly.


Pattern recognition in today’s wildfire community

Today we have an article from a guest author, Derrick Davis, a Fire Captain with the Kern County Fire Department in southern California.


Pattern recognition in today’s wildfire community

There is no doubt in everyone’s eyes that fires are burning more intensely than before and the fire service is getting more and more complex day by day. But what has changed from the fires of the early 1900′s?  Have our tactics changed? Has fire taken on a new role and become a beast that is hard to understand?  There is no doubt that things are harder now than they were back then, with land management policies, urban interface and many other factors that leave us in bondage when we try and do our jobs.

But one thing that really hasn’t changed is fire. It still burns exactly the same as it did when man first discovered it, right?  Or are we missing something?  What’s different from the firefighters that arrived to fires via horseback with back pack pumps, Pulaskis, shovels and crosscut saws?  Were their tactics truly any different from ours now? Anchor, flank and pinch. If the fire is too hot, back off and if the conditions allow, go after it. So why are people getting hurt and killed?

If we take a look at some of the recent fatality and near-miss fires, what are some common things we see that leads us down a road into trouble?

  • Unburned Fuel between Us and the Fire
  • Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes, and Safety Zone (LCES) Not in Place (all components of it)
  • Wildland Urban Interface

These are three major things that can eventually lead to game changing outcomes. We already know that we must face and mitigate them. But the reality of it is, are we truly mitigating them or just checking boxes so that we can move forward?  We know there are many other things, that play serious roles in injuries and near-misses on fires, like human factors, inexperience and the nature effect. Let’s face it, our jobs are dangerous, nature is far more powerful than us, but we step out there and combat against it every summer.  Why not try increasing the odds in our favor?

Unburned Fuel between Us and the Fire

It’s no longer a “watch out” situation. It’s a killer, it’s behind every corner and it’s on every rooftop waiting for the right time to pull the trigger or plant the ambush. We need to really re-evaluate (seriously evaluate) every time that we consider being placed in that situation. The way “today’s” fires have the potential to burn and are burning, our time wedge is greatly reduced and we are having a hard time truly estimating and understanding real and true potential of fire spread and intensity.

LCES Not in Place

It’s a pretty simple concept and is the key to safety and going home at night if you understand its true meaning. It’s not a something we can just cover in a briefing so we can move forward with the plan. It is constant and needs to be continually re-evaluated to ensure safety.

Every crew has at least one lookout, but if it’s only one, can that one person truly see everything that’s coming our way?  Two or three of them plus, a set of outside eyes always helps. What’s the phrase? One is none and two is one. So if two is one, then four is really two? The more lookouts, the better, and other people’s eyes and voices are good to confirm that little voice in your head saying “this isn’t feeling so right” when it’s hot and heavy. Remember that using air resources is great. They can see a lot when they focus directly on you, but air should not be your only lookout.


Communication is the key to clarity. It’s a must, and not just internally. You need to have multiple sources. Share information with everyone. Let all the necessary people involved know exactly what your intentions are and ask for feedback. It’s not reality unless it’s shared.  If your assignment or intentions are effectively communicated,and understood by everyone, then everyone knows the plan. If there is uncertainty in the plan it draws questions that will lead to plan modification, probably for a safer working environment.

Escape routes 

We must have escape routes and they must be known. They have to be validated so that in this “new normal” fire environment they will be adequate to lead to the bigger picture (safety zones).

Safety zones

What is a good safety zone anymore? Is it the black? And if that’s the case, what is a good black or burned area?  It’s a topic that needs to be revisited over and over again. If it’s not the black then what is it?  Structures? Roads? Vehicles?  Is the safety zone adequate for the fire behavior that is forecast, predicted and being observed?

LCES is vital to our safety and it needs to be properly understood, developed and practiced.

Wildland Urban Interface

It’s unavoidable that people build their houses in the woods. Who wouldn’t want to be in the woods?  We are asked every year to go out there and save those structures from fire. We get target fixated at times during structure defense. LCES goes out the window and we put ourselves out in front of the fire. These are the things that can spell disaster with a capital D. We will continue to do this every year, so we need to do a much better job of recognizing the patterns that lead to disaster.

So how do we mitigate it and make it fighting fire safer?  Pre-planning to ensure the public is doing their part in creating defensible space is key. This firefighting game is a partnership between us and the public. No partnership lasts very long in an 80/20 effort. It needs to be a 50/50 relationship.

Each year about this time we start preparing for this season’s challenges after catching our breath and look back at the adventures of the past summer. Most of us go “wow that was a good one, glad we got out of that one safely”. But why are we still having the “that was close” conversations? Are we failing to recognize the patterns that lead to trouble?  Is our situational awareness not built up enough?  As it’s been said before, we go out each year and go to war with a force that is always much stronger and more powerful than us. Don’t you think we should start stacking the odds in our favor?

Keep your head and senses up and come home safe.


Wildland fire discussion at NFFF conference

NFFFThe National Fallen Firefighters (NFFF) just concluded a conference they called Tampa 2 this week. It was a followup to the original NFFF Firefighter Life Safety Summit held in Tampa in April of 2004, where the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives were developed for structural firefighting. The goals of the conference were to continue to work towards firefighter safety, to reaffirm the initiatives, and identify what changes are needed in order to continue the industry’s advances in safety.

Conferences like this usually concentrate on structural firefighter issues, but a panel discussion at least briefly discussed wildland firefighting, according to an article at Firehouse.com. Below is an excerpt:

The Life Safety Initiatives really aren’t relevant to wildland firefighting, and that needs to be changed.

Also, “consistent firefighter medical standards are not being followed by all organizations involved in wildland firefighting resulting in potentially preventable medical emergencies or LODDs.”


Video about 2003 fire tornado in Australia, and the results of the fire behavior research

Lee side slope fire behavior

Lee side slope fire behavior. A wind eddy on the lee slope can push the fire up the slope opposite the prevailing wind direction. At the ridge top, the fire can also move horizontally, 90 degrees off the main wind direction. Screen grab from the video.

In November, 2012 we wrote about some of the research that was conducted to study and document what can only be described as a fire tornado in Australia, a tornado-like event that can be generated by a wildfire. In recent years a new term has been coined — firenado — which seems appropriate.

It occurred near Chapman in the Australian Capitol Territories during the McIntyres Hut Fire January 18, 2003. After studying the event, Rick McRae of the ACT and others discovered that it traveled across 25 kilometers at 30 kph (19 mph), had horizontal winds of 250 kph (149 mph), and vertical winds of 150 kph (93 mph). Damage that occurred to trees and structures is much like what you would see after a tornado in Oklahoma.

Australia’s ABC TV produced an excellent video that goes surprisingly deeply into some of the scientific principles of this phenomenon, including fire behavior when a strong wind pushes a fire up a slope. This can result in spot fires at the bottom of the slope on the other side, the lee slope, which can be pushed rapidly up the lee slope by a wind eddy in the opposite direction of the prevailing wind (see the screen grab above from the video). They also documented how a fire at the top of the ridge can travel across the ridge at 90 degrees to the direction of the prevailing wind.

Knowledge about this kind of fire behavior is something that wildland firefighters should retain in their “slide file”, in the unfortunate event that they find themselves in danger of being entrapped and are considering using the lee side of a ridge as an escape route or a sheltering location.

Check out our November, 2012 article for more information about this 2003 event. The video below illustrates some of the findings developed by the fire researchers.

The information in the video can be even more interesting when considered along with the winds at the site of the Yarnell Hill Fire entrapment, as modeled by WindWizard. The image below is from page 79 of the Yarnell Hill Fire SAIT report. Click the image to see a slightly larger version.

Yarnell Hill Fire, wind vectors modeled using WindWizard