This is why you don’t want to be under a retardant drop

If that video does not convince you — last year a firefighter from Utah who was working on a fire in California was killed when a retardant drop uprooted an 87-foot tall tree that fell on him.

Panel details improvements on the horizon for wildland fire situational awareness

New tools being developed that can help fight fires more safely and efficiently

fire situational awareness speakers
Left to right: Kate Dargan, co-founder and chief strategist of the firefighting-analytics firm Intterra Group; James Reilly, Director of U.S. Geological Survey; and Jeff Johnson, CEO of the Western Fire Chiefs Association. Screenshot from USGIF video below.

A very interesting panel discussion titled “The Power of Real-Time Data for Firefighting” occurred at a conference organized by the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF) — a nonprofit, educational organization supporting the geospatial intelligence tradecraft.

The three primary speakers during the panel were Kate Dargan, co-founder and chief strategist of the firefighting-analytics firm Intterra Group; James Reilly, Director of U.S. Geological Survey; and Jeff Johnson, CEO of the Western Fire Chiefs Association.

They discussed some tools that are slowly beginning to appear in the hands of wildland firefighters and what is being worked on that could show up in the field soon that will enhance their situational awareness. They talked about real time fire perimeters that could be displayed on mobile devices, tracking firefighting resources, and high-resolution LIDAR mapping of the entire United States — right along the lines of what we have called the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighting.

The video below begins with introductions of the speakers and is followed by a description of the Camp Fire that burned through Paradise, California. If you’re already familiar with that incident, you  can skip ahead to 8:00 where Kate Dargan begins her excellent presentation. She became a firefighter at the age of 18 and worked her way up to the post of California State Fire Marshall and later co-founded the Intterra Group.

Here is a sample from her remarks where she described her vision of real time fire intelligence:

We need a persistent fire perimeter. I need to know where the fire is at all times. I need to know where I am against that fire perimeter. I need to know where my forces next to me are. I need to know that at a minimum of one square meter resolution. And I need to know that what is collected and served to me on my mobile device is no more than two minutes old. I need to see that in a shape file so I can put other data with it. That’s what real time means to me…That’s the bulls eye we should be aiming at.

Below is a screengrab image from the video.

Kate Dargan situational awareness wildfire
One of the slides from the presentation by Kate Dargan, co-founder and chief strategist of the firefighting-analytics firm Intterra Group. Screenshot from the video below.

NWCG approves new fire shirt design with retroreflective striping

Considered but discarded the option of high-visibility fabric for entire shirt

new wildland firefighter shirt design striping
Retroreflective striping has been added to the 2011 FS spec shirt design. Depending on stocking levels, this new revision of shirts will arrive in orders within a year or two.

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group has approved a modification to the wildland firefighter shirt to add retroreflective striping on the arms and pocket flaps. In the article below written by Tony Petrilli, the U.S. Forest Service’s National Technology and Development (T&D) Program Project Leader for firefighter clothing, he explains that it will become available through the regular fire equipment system in one to two years. He also describes how they decided on the striping, rather than high visibility cloth for the entire shirt.

The article was published June 12, 2019 at the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center website.

High Visibility — More to the Story . . .
By Tony Petrilli

As the U.S. Forest Service’s National Technology and Development Program (T&D) Project Leader for firefighter clothing, I would like to address some of the history and decision-making criteria concerning Forest Service “spec” garments.

A recent Blog Post on this LLC site written by Charlie Palmer [] referred to a proposal that he sent to us at the National Technology and Development Program four years ago requesting us to evaluate high visibility (HV) flame resistant (FR) garments. While this project proposal was rejected, most importantly, the concept was not. (Another Key Point: Project proposals to T&D are vetted through an interagency fire steering committee, not necessarily T&D itself.)

Many years ago, I asked FR fabric manufacturers here in the United States about HV. A couple years after that, one of the manufacturers had developed a new HV fabric.

Current Shirt

During the T&D firefighter shirt redesign project that resulted in the current (M2011) FS spec design, high visibility yellow color fabric was one of the many fabrics considered and was wear tested by firefighters in the field. Some resultant facts and findings:

  1. Flame resistant meta-aramid (Nomex IIIA) fabric does not bond well with high visibility colored dyes to American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) visibility standards.
  2. Flame resistant fabric made with modacrylic fibers can be dyed with HV colors.
  3. In order to meet the minimum radiant protective performance (RPP) requirements, modacrylic fabric needs to be heavier and thicker than current meta-aramid (Nomex IIIA) fabric.
  4. Wear test shirts made from HV modacrylic blend fabric received low ratings from firefighters in terms of heat stress and comfort due to lower air permeability and heavier weight of the fabric.
  5. Wear testers found that the high visibility dyes washed out with relatively few washings and leftover fire grime in the fabric left it rather dull and faded.

It seems most everything is a tradeoff in firefighter clothing. Balances therefore need to be scrutinized and discussed. Example: Garment/fabric radiant heat protection (from the fire) is very much inversely proportional to heat loss that is human generated. HV also comes with a tradeoff cost.


Firefighters run the risk of heat stress many days during a fire season. It was therefore decided that it was not worth increasing that risk (as slight as that may be) by wearing heavier/less breathable high visibility clothing. The traits of the normal yellow meta-aramid blend shirt was determined as the appropriate balance of all fabric qualities.

Any New Developments? Retroreflective Striping

Just last month, the NWCG Equipment Technology Committee agreed to a slight modification to the 2011 FS spec shirt design. The NWCG Risk Management Committee has also been briefed on this new revision. The shirt style has been wear-tested with firefighters in the field.

The biggest change is the addition of segmented *retroreflective striping. It is limited to placement on the pocket flaps and the bottom edge of the elbow patches due to the small possibility of stored energy burns and the lack of air permeability. Placing a limited amount of segmented striping will decrease the possibility of unintended outcomes yet is a practical step toward being more visible.

Depending on stocking levels, the new revision of shirts will arrive in orders within a year or two.

In a few years, when the Product Review Life Cycle brings back the shirt project, high visibility fabric and other new technology with potential benefits will once again be considered. This year we are starting a project review for firefighter pants. Be looking for a product questionnaire coming out soon!

Any agency or department can perform their own Risk Assessment and Trade-Off Analysis. If the need for excellent high visibility qualities (instead of the very good qualities of a clean yellow shirt) outweigh the need for excellent heat loss and air permeability, investigate private vendors that sell HV garments. For buyer protection, make sure the garment label confirms certification to NFPA 1977.

Until New Shirts with Reflective Striping Arrive, What Can We Do to Optimize Firefighter Visibility with the Current Clothing?

  1. Many firefighters carry signal mirrors that coincidentally don’t work well in smoky and cloudy conditions or in the dark. Consider replacing or supplementing that signal mirror with a small (size of a marker) strobe flashlight. Some folks have reported that these flashlights are very effective. (See this “New Signaling Tools” RLS.)
  2. Trade in dirty clothing at incident Supply Units or come to a fire with a couple clean sets in your red bag.
  3. Follow The Red Book Chapter 7 direction for permanently stained or old, faded shirts—replace them.
  4. Leave reflective striping intact on helmets and fireline packs.

Besides Visibility is Dirty PPE an Issue?

Besides the lack of visibility qualities, soiled garments have been shown to offer less radiant heat protection, be flammable (if gas and oil soiled), less breathable, and may contain toxins that are harmful to the wearer. Anecdotally, I have noticed less and less super-dirty firefighters while on assignments lately. Even so, firefighters need to be educated on this issue and supervisors need to take measures to ensure relatively clean garments are worn.

Currently, T&D is working with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to test real-world soiled firefighter clothing for such potential hazards, then determine the risk as well as the appropriate cleaning practices.

two firefighters dirty shirt clean
A couple years ago… A Division Supervisor (me) on right in a clean yellow shirt next to a (former dirt-bag) hotshot (my son). As you can see, the soiled shirt has much less visibility quality than a clean one.

Many firefighters don’t want to be visible. They feel clean clothes and reflective striping somehow makes them look uncool. They subscribe to LCES—“Look Cool Every Second”. (Sorry, Paul G.) If someone gives you grief for wearing a clean or new looking shirt, tell them you wore out your old one. By the way, my son did not give me grief for being clean, he knows better than that. He did, however, say that I look good!

Comments or questions? Feel free to contact me at or 406-329-3965.

*Note from Bill: According to Reflectivetapeinfo, “The word “retro” is the key to understanding the difference between a reflective surface like a mirror, and a retro reflective surface like a bike or automobile reflector. Retro means to go back or backward. In the reflective tape industry it means to return light back where it came from and no where else.”

North Carolina firefighters suppress fire in deep organic soils

Squires Fire Pender County, North Carolina
A firefighter on the Squires Fire in Pender County, North Carolina. NCFS photo.

From the North Carolina Forest Service:

Mop-up efforts on the Squires Timber Fire in Pender County concluded this week and it’s now in monitor status. NCFS rangers are keeping an eye on this to make sure it stays out. About three acres of the wildfire were in a Carolina bay with heavy organic soils which made for challenging control as the fire burned as much as two feet deep. The 8-acre wildfire began April 29 but flared back up after long, hot, and dry days. The initial cause was an escaped debris burn.

Squires Fire Pender County, North Carolina
A firefighter works on the Squires Fire in Pender County, North Carolina while wearing wildland firefighter personal protective equipment. NCFS photo.
Squires Fire Pender County, North Carolina
A dozer puts in a fireline on the Squires Fire in Pender County, North Carolina. NCFS photo.

Bill to provide real-time location of fires and firefighters sent to the President

The legislation passed both the House and the Senate with overwhelming bipartisan support

firefighter radio White Draw Fire
A firefighter on the White Draw Fire uses a radio to coordinate with other firefighters. July 29, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A bill that directs the federal land management agencies to begin implementing a system that would enhance the situational awareness of wildland firefighters has passed both the House and the Senate and is awaiting the signature of the President.

On February 12 the Senate passed the Natural Resources Management Act with a vote of 92 to 8, and yesterday the House passed it 363 to 62.

The bill also includes numerous other actions related to public lands including creating more than 1.3 million acres of wilderness out West, adding three national park units, and expanding eight others.

If the bill passes and is actually implemented by the federal land management agencies it would generate progress toward what we have called the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety, knowing the real time location of a fire and the resources assigned. Too many firefighters have been killed when the exact location of one or both of these critical aspects of situational awareness were unknown. Recent examples with a total of 24 line of duty deaths were on the Yarnell Hill and Esperanza Fires.

The technology to monitor in real time a fire and firefighting resources has existed for years. Various systems are being used already by a few state and local agencies. The military does it for their war fighters, monitoring the enemy and their own forces. If implemented on fires, it will save lives.

Firefighters lives are as important as soldiers.

“I am proud that our Public Lands package passed the House yesterday and that we were able to include in it Senator Cantwell and Senator Gardner’s seminal bill to better equip our firefighters”, said Senator Joe Manchin, Ranking Member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “It is plain to see that wildfires are getting worse not better, and I want to ensure these brave men and women have access to the tools available that will keep them safe, as they work to keep us safe.”

The key points, below, in the legislation have requirements for the Secretaries of Interior and Agriculture. The completion dates will be established from the time the legislation is signed.

    • Establish a research, development, and testing program, or expand an applicable existing program, to assess unmanned aircraft system technologies, including optionally piloted aircraft, across the full range of wildland fire management operations. (within 180 days)
    • Develop consistent protocols and plans for the use on wildland fires of unmanned aircraft system technologies, including for the development of real-time maps of the location of wildland fires. (within 180 days)
    • Develop and operate a tracking system to remotely locate the positions of fire resources, including, at a minimum, any fire resources assigned to Federal Type 1 wildland fire incident management teams. (within 2 years)  According to a press release by Senator Maria Cantwell, by the 2021 fire season, all firefighting crews – regardless of whether they are federal, state, or local – working on large wildfires will be equipped with GPS locators.
    • Establish a system to track and monitor decisions made by state and federal wildland firefighting agencies to flag unusual costs, and those that endanger firefighters or deviate from an applicable fire management plan. (no time requirement)
    • Assign air quality resource advisors to Type 1 incidents managing a fire on federal land. (no time requirement)
    • Establish a system to collect data on firefighter injuries that were treated by a doctor, and all deaths during the Work Capacity Test, vehicle crashes, and aircraft accidents. (no time requirement)
    • The two Secretaries will work with NASA to establish a “Rapid Response Erosion Database” and maps that would make it possible to evaluate changes in land cover and soil properties caused by wildland fires. (no time requirement)
    • The two Secretaries, NASA, the Secretary of Energy, and the National Laboratories shall establish and maintain a system to predict the locations of future wildfires for fire-prone areas of the United States. (no time requirement)

The bill does not appropriate any additional funding to implement the real-time tracking provision. A study by the Congressional Budget Office concluded that the estimated $8 million cost is “insignificant” in the overall billions of dollars spent on wildland fire. Discussions behind the scenes in Washington are centered around small tracking devices being included in kits available from the wildland fire warehouse system which can be ordered by incident management teams the same way they order radio kits. The devices could then be distributed to personnel and other resources on fires. The newer Bendix-King radios used by firefighters already have GPS receivers which could be used to provide location data in a tracking system.

Now the question becomes, will the federal land management agencies actually implement the program to track the real-time location of fires and firefighters, or will they slow-walk it into oblivion like the Congressional orders to purchase a new air tanker, convert seven HC-130H Coast Guard aircraft into air tankers, and the repeated requests from the GAO and Inspector General to provide data about the effectiveness of firefighting aircraft?

(UPDATE February 28, 2019)

What is the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety?

Camp Fire Northern California
Firefighters on the night shift at the Camp Fire in Northern California, November 2018. Inciweb photo.

It has been a while since we wrote in detail about what in 2013 we first called the Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighter Safety.

It is a system that could track in real time the location of firefighters AND the fire, all displayed on one screen. This data should be available in real time to key supervisors and decision makers in the Operations and Planning Sections on fires. Knowing the positions of personnel relative to the fire would be a massive step in improved situational awareness and could reduce the number of firefighters killed on fires. Too often firefighters have been surprised, overrun, and sometimes killed by a rapidly spreading wildfire when they did not know where the fire was and/or their supervisors did not know the correct, actual location of the personnel.

Not everyone on a fire would need to monitor the location data all the time, but at least one person should be given the responsibility to be sure that a rapidly spreading wildfire does not overrun the location of firefighting resources. Darkness, smoke, and terrain can obscure the location of the fire from firefighters on the ground.

A drone orbiting high over the fire far above air tankers and helicopters could use near infrared cameras to see through smoke. A safety officer, for example, could be given the duty of ensuring that firefighters are not surprised and become entrapped by flames. Depending on the size of a fire and its activity it might only take one person to be sure firefighters are in safe positions. More complex or more active fires might need more.

Several times the report on the Mendocino Complex issued last week mentions that firefighters did not know for sure where the fire was. In addition, for a while no one knew where the six firefighters were that had been entrapped and were running from the fire. All six of them had suffered injuries and needed to be rescued. It was quite some time before they were located after searching with trucks and a helicopter.

The locations of firefighters could be provided by the newer Bendix-King radios many firefighters are already using that have built-in GPS receivers. Small devices that could fit in a shirt pocket could do the same thing and be provided by the interagency fire warehouse system, shipped to the fire like radio caches. The data could be sent through an on-the-ground mesh network, device to device, and be relayed to a server by cell phone towers or through a receiver on the drone orbiting the fire and then to a cell tower or satellite.

Ideally a safety officer given this duty would be at the fire and would be familiar with the fuel, topography, and weather. But in a pinch, or perhaps during the very early stages of a fire it could be done by a qualified person anywhere, as long as they had an internet connection.

In addition, it is very important for the Planning and Operations Section Chiefs to know in real time where the fire is so they can better plan and deploy resources to locations where they will be the most effective. Often Incident Action Plans are made using obsolete fire location information. By the time firefighters get to their assignment in the field sometimes it becomes obvious that the fire has moved and the plan, tactics, and strategy have to be changed and resources are relocated. Real time situational intelligence will reduce the lag time for deployment of resources to the locations where they are most needed.

Fire Behavior Analysts that could continuously observe the fire with the available video could make much more accurate, valuable, and timely Fire Behavior Forecasts. The fire spread information that their models develop could be displayed immediately on the map, enabling the Operations Section Chief to make better-informed strategic and tactical decisions. Any firefighters that show up in the predicted growth area could be alerted.

The technology to provide real time personnel and fire location information has existed for years. A number of state and local agencies are already using various versions of the location tracking systems. Putting a drone in the sky with an infrared camera above the firefighting aircraft could be done today. Linking these two sources of information so that they can be displayed on a map can be done. The military does this every day, tracking the location of the enemy and the friendly forces. Firefighters lives are just as valuable as soldiers’.

The five federal land management agencies and the states with significant numbers of wildland firefighters need to implement a Holy Grail system as soon as possible. It can save lives. There is no acceptable excuse for not getting this done. Government officials that drag their feet on this should have trouble sleeping at night.

Some Senators and Congressmen have been mocked for their lack of knowledge about technology, but they are way ahead of the five agencies on this issue. The federal fire directors should be embarrassed that it is literally taking an act of Congress to get them to begin using a Holy Grail system.

And, please don’t say this system that can save lives is not necessary, and that all we have to do is to tell firefighters to follow the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders or the other check lists. The Orders have been around for 62 years. Someone just saying “follow them” will not magically make it happen. That has been said millions of times in the last six decades and still, between 1990 and 2015, an average of 17 wildland firefighters were killed each year. Continuing to do the same thing while expecting different results is not realistic.

I’m not saying the Orders should not be followed. They should be. But continually saying “follow them” has still resulted in too many fatalities. We need to do that, and a lot more.