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.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

19 thoughts on “Firefighters — Don’t squander the early morning hours”

  1. I agree with the notion that we need to get operational staff out on fires earlier. Might be an idea to work more split shifts during times when extreme fire behavior(s) are forecast. Why not pull crews off the line during these peak burning periods, and let them back on once the diurnal wx changes occur(early mornings/evenings/night). I know here in BC we have a lot of remote access fires which limit our ability to fight fires at night, but we certainly could work towards getting crews on the line earlier.

  2. Bill,

    Having been in fire for over 30 years I have also asked the same question and thought of similar time frames for shifts. I remember numerous times as a shot wondering why we were wasting good working hours and constantly being behind the curve. I can foresee feedback regarding planning schedules from teams and logistical concerns for feeding, etc. but the overall concept warrants discussion and testing. I remember getting a lot of good work accomplished in the evening, and having a different day shift time frame would provide an opportunity to run a late afternoon/evening shift (briefing at 1500, travel and on line at 1700 or so) would be a shorter shift but still provide opportunity to accomplish good work (burning, mop-up, holding, etc.). Interested to see what discussion this brings.

  3. In recent years as the sun goes down we wave good-by to the Federal crews, see you sometime tomorrow morning. Don’t know how far we will get but hopefully we will complete our division assignment or “hook” this thing. Good night.

  4. I agree totally, it feels like we are standing in briefing at the absolute best time to be getting to work, on both day and night shifts.

    As for committing people at night, every fire I have been on has had a night crew. And the night mirror of your schedule would work much better for night ops, too. Off the clock in time to get some sleep before it gets too hot, back on the line in time to see.

    I sure hope people in charge are listening!

  5. Another takeway is that an average time of 24 minutes from blow-up to burnover says a lot about how quickly crews need to know what fire is doing, pull out, and reach a real safety zone. If observation and communication aren’t as good as needed, how many of those minutes might be wasted?

  6. Unfortunately the general public does not support us being “off the clock” from 16:00 to 19:30, as the fire is usually picking up steam, and thats when they want to see all the aircraft flying, bucketing operations, and people on the site…

    Fighting fire at night makes sense, and is safe, as long as certain considerations are put in place before hand… (escape routes, medivac plan, comms plan, danger tree removal, etc etc etc)…. Plus, it is also a lot more productive, not just from lack of fire activity, but the WFF’s don’t run out of steam as easy when its cooler…

    We get told LOTS, that we will not recieve our helis for bucket support til 9:00 or 10:00, cause we don’t want to run out of duty day in the peak of the burning period (cause the fire is gonna do what it wants, bucketing ain’t gonna help jack, BUT that’s what the GP wants to see…) Send half your bucket ships out at first light and lay down some serious water before it heats up (plus cooler temps allow for bigger payloads with density altitude), keep the other half for afternoon support….

    Definitely a difficult transition in the world of fire fighting, to get the general public and politicians, to understand…

  7. COYOTE, having worked for F.S. B.LM. and Cal Fire I know I’m a strange duck, but I would rather stay out and be supported, not driving back and forth. As a leader I can determine what represents a risk or change of plans. I have hear the EEOC thing enough, the weather guess may or may not be correct. I have good eye sight and situational awareness. Rolling rocks, snakes, spiders got it. Give me a fresh I.A.P., food, water, batteries. The crew and I can usually get a better rest period in the field than at incident base, Toilet doors slamming, generator running, back-up alarms ringing. JUST STOP IT. See you when the assignment is done.

  8. I like the picture from El Cariso with the firefighter using the bow bar. I know most people hated the bow bar, but I always had a lot of fun using it. I was on a bd crew one season and man o man we got a lot of work done with the bow bars and some of us even became pretty proficient at taking down some fairly good size trees with them. And no one ever got hurt,as we really looked out after each other.

  9. Thanks for mentioning night shift. I fear it’s becoming a knee jerk reaction that fighting fire at night is too dangerous, but as you point out, in many cases it is actually safer and you are getting something done instead of sitting in the safety zone until the end of the shift.

  10. Another interesting time frame would be the start time for these fires. A heads up situation for me is an IA fire that occurs early in the morning during critical fire weather. There is a lot of weather ahead and as all experienced folks know things can change very quickly.

  11. This all sounds good in theory, but I disagree. Sometimes fires do get up and run during peak burning periods that make air resources and direct attack ineffective. It is important to note that this is not always the case. The current suppression shifts allow for a significant amount of line production and prep work in the morning (and a good shot crew will already be enroute to the line while a poor sucker who drew a short straw is stuck in a briefing if they are not spiked out). The heat of the day is the most critical time for holding that line. If everybody is bouncing out at this time or fatigued from putting in line for a whole shift, a crew will not be effective in holding line when the trees start torching and the spots start coming. You can put all the line in the world in during the rest of the day but it doesnt mean jack if you cant hold it. The fact of the matter is we need to be there during the heat of the day. Effective firing operations sometimes require the burning conditions only available in the afternoon to produce the clean hard black needed. Also, we don’t like to fight fire at night because you cant ID hazards, I recall many a night shift hearing unknown boulders and snags crash down all around hoping it wasn’t going to hit me. Not super formulated arguments here but I think you get the picture.

  12. I have seen a lot of time wasted in transporting crews to and from fires. In helicopter operations four or five crews plus over head would arrive and we would have a couple of mediums and perhaps a light to do the shuttle. Not counting slinging out supplies. Crews would not arrive till 8am and perhaps by 10 get them out then restart it around 3 pm to get them in. Then plans would change and air ops/air support and the base manager are up late reshuffling AC assignments.

    I like the idea of a early start.
    And there is nothing wrong with night shifts.
    And to get an early start I would suggest walking in/out or both.
    Air operations have their own complex set of rules concerning times, duty hours and operations. A 0500 start can be done but there will be a much earlier shut down at the end of the day. I have seen the air ops staff on more then one fire gain a lot of gray hair.

    Pilots are limited on a duty day and daily flight hours. And it takes only one unplanned shut down helicopter, whatever the cause to wreck havoc on the most carefully planned air operation.

  13. I have been one of those in the slightly younger generation of WFFs that has thought about this at length and have had some discussion with those more seasoned than myself about it. It seems that from the line, split shifts or swing shifts make the most sense. I like the sample schedule in the article in theory, but the problem of adequate, quality rest will be significantly challenged by it most of the season. We all know until the sun goes down it’s normally too hot to sleep outside. With budgets being hit as they are, indoor accommodations are going to be harder to get. Schools are no good, typically, because no matter how nice the gym, it’s still a giant echo chamber. In short, with the sample schedule, I think you’d end up with folks sleeping 4-5 hours and your production will suffer anyway. We’re in a tough spot one way or the other. As some of the other comments said, I push my air resources to be rolling early, try to set them down mid day, and save some flight time for post peak burn period work. Usually that doesn’t work due to pressure from WUI, sensitive species issues (i.e. Sage Grouse), spotting over “critical” lines, etc, etc. Ultimately, lack of resources, ground and air, will always limit how we progress and the work restrictions for those limited resources will keep us looking at the next ridge, burn scar, or road.

    I’d like to see a team experiment with a staggered shift system to get away from the strict day and night shifts. Logistically I know it would be tricky, but I think it could also help eliminate some of the camp log jams as resources try to get in and out of chow, supply, and fuel all at the same time.

    Good luck to everyone this season and stay safe.

  14. The exposure to risk ratio is far less when you compare night shifts to day shifts, as proven in the 2 hour chart. However, wildland firefighting is a 24 hour day requirement and commitment. Well trained and heads up crews can and should safely handle either assignment. A perfect example of a failure to commit crews to an evening shift that resulted in mayhem & tragedy would be the non-existent initial attack on the Yarnell HiIl Fire in the early evening of June 28th. A perfectly safe assignment to suppress a inactive fire when all conditions are in the favor of the firefighter. Quick, aggressive & proper suppression when the behavior of the fire allows it is routinely ignored.

  15. Spike or Coyote. We talk about driving being a hazard and we make resources drive into camp every night. Its a waste of time.

    I don’t agree with dodging the active period, we’re firefighters. Being a firefighter doesn’t mean undo risk or negligence, but the job is being there not avoiding difficult conditions. You can be safe during the peak, thousands more firefighters have been safe than have ever been injured/fatalities.

  16. What’s wrong with 24 hour shifts? This covers just about all the above issues:
    >cuts windshield time in half
    >troops in place at both critical times of day
    >everyone gets to sleep at night
    > been working in Calif. for several years now
    >reduces logistical issues, but troops must have resupply on the line support.

    1. 24 hour shifts have some inherent safety risks that need to be talked about: the effect of being awake and working that long has the physiological effect of having a bllod alcohol level of about 0.10: legally drunk in most States! Driving vehicles, operating heavy equipment and chain saws, staying situationally aware are all risky to begin with, and much riskier when tired after 16-24 hours on shift.

  17. Night shifts are not very business-friendly if you think about the vendor aspect. I don’t know how much is intentional, but there’s a natural pull towards a setup that involves maximum consumption of resources. Which is sort of the current state of affairs. 24 hour shifts and active work at night could cut the time on fires down significantly…

  18. Response to concerns re: 24 hr. shifts:
    >most early morning (2400 hrs. on) periods when the fire conditions allow, firefighters will take turns getting a few hours sleep. Especially drivers.
    > one good night time sleep during the 24 off is better than the 4 to 6 hours you will get during the day in a typical incident base. This is especially true if you can get them into a motel.(I know people scoff at CALFIRE motel policy, but it is safer, as long as driving time is not excessive.

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