Every year, between 60,000 and 80,000 wildfires occur in the United States—many of these are small and relatively inconsequential, but others become bona fide natural disasters (or semi-natural disasters, in the case of those started by humans).
Enter wildland firefighters: these men and women are trained in the specialized techniques and equipment needed to combat wildfires. The work is exhausting, conditions are often grim, and the level of danger can be high. Here’s a look into what goes on when fighting a wildfire.
Cue the Fire Manager
At the first signs of a wildfire, a fire manager (or incident commander) is called in to assess the situation and strategize a plan to suppress the fire as quickly and safely as possible.
The fire manager will determine the class-level of the wildfire. In the United States, wildfires are classified based on size on a scale from A (0 to ¼ acre) to G (5,000+ acres).
Other conditions will also be assessed, using a variety of scales and classifications. The Burning Index will classify the length of the flames and how quickly they are spreading; the Haines Index will measure the air over the area of the fire, determining the stability and humidity levels; and the Energy Release Component will assess the fuel energy potential in the area.
Hit or Hold?
Some natural wildfires are deemed safe—Mother Nature’s way of doing some pruning, without causing real damage to the local water quality and wildlife. In these cases, wildfires are carefully monitored, but are left to burn out on their own.
If the wildfire is deemed to be uncontrollable, the fire manager, alongside a team of experts, determines who and what they will need to start implementing the suppression strategy.
Assemble the Crew
Crews can include a variety of specially trained wildland firefighters summoned from near and far. For instance, hotshot crews are at the front of line when a wildfire first starts, or when the wildfire is in a high-risk area. Smokejumpers arrive to hard-to-access scenes via parachute to start containing the fire.
Arriving on Scene
Once the crew has arrived, they map out a course of action to ensure the safety of everyone involved. This includes identifying escape routes, establishing communication, and designating lookouts. Safety is the primary concern throughout the implementation of the suppression plan.
Potential damages are assessed, and the next steps are determined based on what’s at stake. Considerations include human health and safety, ecological impact, and costs of protection, among many others.
Establishing the Anchor Point
Wildland firefighters will begin engaging the appropriate suppression tactics. Firefighters will identify an anchor point, which is the area where the firefighters can begin their work without becoming overpowered by the fire. The anchor point might be a lake, a road, a rock slide, or another type of fire break, whether its natural or man-made.
Typically, wildland firefighters want to establish a fireline around the areas of the fire that are to be suppressed. The fireline is the boundary established around the wildfire, and sets the area to which the fire is trying to be contained. It can be established in a few ways, often by physically building or digging a non-combustible trench along the perimeter of the fire area.
Reassessing and Reacting
The unpredictability of a wildfire means that the suppression strategy must continually be reassessed, hence the importance of communication among crew members at all times. High winds, especially, can change the course and severity of a wildfire on a dime.
The work isn’t finished once the flames are out: the scalding hot debris left behind continue to pose a threat. Firefighters must continue working to ensure the area is completely cooled off—otherwise, another wildfire could be ignited from the debris.