Behind the Scenes of Fighting a Wildfire


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.

Rank­ing Resources
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 PointWater
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.

The Fire­line
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.

Cool­ing Down
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.