On the front lines: How firefighters combat wildfires
Wildfires can be enigmatic.
Fire officials are well aware of the variables that dictate how a wildfire will behave: the moisture levels in fuel sources that have been adapting to changes in the climate, the direction and speed of the wind, and the severity of slopes along the landscape.
But even the slightest change in conditions can alter a fire’s path and intensity, creating an entirely new outlook on the situation as emergency workers rush to gather intelligence and adjust their suppression tactics.
For some firefighters, the dance serves as a reminder that what they’re up against is an uncompromising and devastating force of nature, and it isn’t to be underestimated.
“It’s an interesting thing — and it only comes with experience — to see Mother Nature rage like that and to be comfortable with it,” Red, White & Blue Fire Protection District Capt. Derek “Goose” Goossen said. “We’ll try to predict what she’s going to do today. But really, she’s going to do whatever she wants. Nine times out of 10, she’s going to say, ‘Screw you, humans.’
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“We’ll look at the tactics we use and the strategies we can try and see what kind of effect we can have on a force like wildfire. It’s intriguing to see that struggle between humans and Mother Nature, to watch the arm wrestle that happens and see who comes out on top. Sometimes we win. Usually we lose.”
Defending the wildland-urban interface
Modern developments in firefighting tactics and technologies are providing officials a fighting chance. And when you’re battling Mother Nature, it helps to be proactive.
Experts say that some of the best tools they have against wildfires are preventative: educating the public along the wildland-urban interface about best practices in fire safety and creating fire breaks in sensitive areas.
“There’s an old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” said Jeff Berino, former chief at Summit Fire & EMS and a fire investigator. “The more we can do to raise the awareness and prevent the fire from happening in the first place is a win. Common sense is a lot of that, but when you look at what’s causing wildfires, it’s mostly humans.”
Berino pointed to programs offered in Summit County — like the chipping program, home defensible space audits and wildfire preparedness classes offered by the fire districts — as necessary efforts to help get community members ready for potential fires.
Hazardous fuels reduction projects also have become more frequent over recent years, essentially serving to break up the continuity of fuel sources in an effort to reduce the risk of wildfires in the wildland-urban interface and provide firefighters with safer environments to engage fires.
Locally, officials have lauded projects like the U.S. Forest Service’s efforts near the Wildernest and Mesa Cortina neighborhoods in 2011 — when 300- to 500-foot-wide fire breaks were cut — that helped to protect about $1 billion in property during the 2018 Buffalo Mountain Fire.
Other efforts are ongoing. At the end of March, the Forest Service approved the Peak 7 Hazardous Fuels Reduction project, which will treat about 522 acres of forested land near Breckenridge, creating 400- to 600-foot-wide community protection zones in areas identified as high risk.
“I think it’s critical,” said Ross Wilmore, wildland fire specialist with the Greater Eagle Fire Protection District. “Defensible space measures really give firefighters a chance. It gives them some time and space to work with. … If you’ve got a homeowner that has done defensible space work on their property, and we’ve done a little fuels reduction on the national forest land, that’s the best of both worlds. We have room to work on public land, and what’s behind us is a tactically advantageous situation.”
Deciding on a response
Officials think of wildfires on a scale of 1-5 based on a number of variables including size, fuel type, complexity and values at risk.
Type 1 fires are the most severe, often requiring hundreds or even thousands of personnel on scene for firefighting operations and logistics work to manage shelter, water, food and more. A Type 5 fire likely could be managed by a single engine within a day. Berino said most wildfires in the Summit County area are Types 4 or 5.
Once a plume of smoke hits the skyline, emergency workers immediately go to work assessing the blaze. A decision could be made to manage or try to steer the fire if it’s determined to be in a safe place. But fires that threaten human lives, structures and other valuable assets like watersheds draw an immediate suppression response.
The first conversations take place around intelligence and tactics. If a wildfire has shown signs of growing, officials will call in a multimission aircraft equipped with state-of-the-art infrared and color sensors, which can provide a detailed perimeter of the blaze and point out hidden hot spots.
“They’ll be orbiting at 20,000 feet above the fire, and I’ve had one radio me for a quarter-sized hot spot,” Goossen said. “I couldn’t see anything hot; I was sticking my fingers in the ground to look for it. The (multimission aircraft) told me to walk 20 feet to the north, turn left and walk 5 feet. … Sure enough, there was a little spot fire starting underneath some bushes.”
Depending on the reconnaissance gathered, more air support could be called in to try to stymie the wildfire’s growth quickly. Generally, firefighters can engage flame lengths of 3 to 4 feet or up to about 12 feet with fire engines.
The main goal in wildfire suppression is to place containment lines around the entire fire, essentially putting it in a box where surrounding fuel sources have been removed or otherwise treated. Firefighters compare their maps to the images they’re receiving from the multimission aircraft and carefully choose where they’re going to try to create containment lines and battle the blaze. Of course, given the dynamic nature of wildfires, there’s always a Plan B and C.
“There’s a decision tree on where we’re going to try and stop the fire,” Berino said. “And there are always backup plans in case it escapes our box. There’s a critical-thinking aspect of this where we have to stay ahead of what the fire is going to do, to think about where it’s going to be in two days, three days or a week.”
Once a fire hits the crown, or if it’s already bearing down on a residential area, firefighters look to the sky for help.
It could take hours for additional firefighters to arrive from other jurisdictions or for local responders to hike into the forest and position themselves in the right areas. But aircraft can start to head off the fire in a matter of minutes, dropping slurry to serve as the first containment lines.
“We can get aircraft to drop slurry on the fire and start that box long before we can get the dozens or hundreds of firefighters we need on the ground,” Berino said. “We may have crews coming from the Front Range, Grand Junction or Glenwood, and that’s going to take several hours. We can get aircraft here in the 20- to 30-minute range.”
Slurry is a mixture of water and inorganic compounds that form a clay-like substance that inhibits combustion. Berino said single-engine air tankers can drop between 400 and 600 gallons of slurry, while DC-10s and the 747 Supertanker responding to major fires can dump about 12,000 to 20,000 gallons at a time.
Responding helicopters — again given a type rating — dump buckets of water directly onto hot spots in the fire to help cool things down.
With a multimission aircraft flying high overhead and tankers and helicopters skimming the treetops, there’s also an air attack supervisor circling in the sky providing directions to aircraft and advising firefighters on the ground of upcoming slurry drops.
The aircraft’s efforts are mirrored on the ground below, where officials and firefighters have been running through checklists in preparation for engaging the fire.
Lookouts have been put in place with binoculars to keep an eye on other firefighters and report changes in fire behavior. Communications have been opened between fire crews and aircraft. Escape routes have been planned, and safety zones have been designated.
Firefighters also will have to make a decision to engage a fire directly or indirectly. An indirect attack essentially means officials are choosing to engage the fire on their own terms, allowing it to burn to a fire break, road or some advantageous natural feature where they can set up engines and water lines to help douse the flames.
In a more direct attack, firefighters most frequently will use a technique called anchor, flank and pinch. The idea is to find an anchor point near the back of the fire — called the heel — that would be difficult to burn over, like a cliff, road or wetland. From there, it’s all about building containment lines along the fire’s sides, always trying to keep downhill with the wind at their backs.
“We’ll construct hand lines on one or both of the flanks, and eventually we’ll try to steer those hand lines together to pinch the head of the fire and put it out,” Goossen said. “… That’s really hard to do in heavy timber, because you can’t outflank a fire with that much energy, and it could be starting spot fires. Usually, we’ll back way off and try to construct a really bolstered line days ahead of the fire.”
In ideal conditions, firefighters can bring in bulldozers to clear out trees and other vegetation quickly, but in forest terrain, it’s often up to hand crews carrying chain saws to do the dirty work.
In regard to spot fires — ignitions outside the perimeter of the main fire caused by flying embers — firefighters are constantly on the lookout. Crews will pump water along the containment line, through an engine or something more portable, and pretreat the opposite side of the line to prevent spot fires and keep the main blaze from jumping the line. There also are regular patrols of firefighters walking back and forth in a grid to catch any ignitions.
“People think firefighters are always staring at the flames,” Goossen said. “But we always have our backs to the fire. We’re on the line looking for spot fires. We know the main fire is coming to us, and we don’t care. We care about embers flying over our heads. … If you don’t spot them, all your efforts are for nothing.”
If other tactics fail, officials can always fight fire with fire.
In a process called back-burning, firefighters will find an area within the inner edge of the fire line and light their own fires using drip torches to try to expend fuel sources before the wildfire reaches the area. In more severe cases, firefighters will even perform heli-torch operations, dropping small pingpong-ball-like incendiary devices to start more widespread fires below.
“If you’ve got a big crown fire where you can’t really get near it and retardant isn’t going to make an impact, what you tend to do is back off to a distance and find an area that’s comprised of less intensely burning fuels,” Wilmore said. “It really does two things: burning out the fuel between you and the control line you’re constructing, and allowing firefighters to work in a fuel type they can manage in terms of heat and fire intensity.”
Once a fire has been contained and starts to lay down, slowly burning down whatever remaining fuel sources still have flames, firefighters will do some final mopping up of the area, taking to grid formations again to methodically check for remaining hot spots to put out.
And while mechanical or handmade containment lines, slurry drops and back-burning are all effective in their own right, the tactics tend to work best together.
“We generally try to get a combination of air, engines and hand crews,” Berino said. “Very seldom is it one thing but all three in concert together: the aircraft to knock it out of the trees and to slow down the head of the fire, the engines providing water to protect structures and hit hot spots, and firefighters on the ground with hand tools and hose lines.”
The human element
For the firefighters working on a wildfire, the experience can be physically and mentally draining.
One of the core values of wildland firefighters is physical fitness, requiring someone to be able to climb a mountain with 70 or more pounds of gear without sacrificing situational awareness at the top.
The living conditions also are less than ideal.
“It’s an unhealthy, hot, dirty environment,” Goossen said. “There are 13 known carcinogens in wood smoke, and we don’t use any breathing apparatus on wildfires. It’s very common to get smoke headaches for days on end if you’re on the front line. And you get black boogers. …
“Sometimes you get good meals, and sometimes you’re just getting MREs just to keep you going. It’s typical for us to work 16-hour days. You go to sleep tired and wake up at 6 in the morning and do it all over again for 14 days straight.”
Others expressed that wildfires were a source of stress for themselves and their families.
“When I was younger, it was more fun than it becomes as you get older,” Summit Fire & EMS engineer Frank Towers said. “I have a wife and a couple young boys. That definitely takes a toll on you. You’re not there to help with home life. It’s not just a sacrifice I’m making, but my wife is having to work double time to pick up the slack. Knowing that can definitely wear on you. You miss your family when you’re out there.”
Some even warned of long-term mental health effects.
“There’s a bond that you build among firefighters that’s based on shared experience, shared hardship, shared challenges,” Wilmore said. “Those bonds are very strong. But all that hardship and stress and fatigue comes at a cost. I think we’re beginning to understand that cost.
“There’s long-term mental health suffering that firefighters and other emergency workers go through, and we need to provide more support for people that in their fire careers see something that keeps them up at night or just experience the stress of going out to fires over the years and suffering small traumas over and over again. … This is a stressful job, and it does exact a toll on you.”
And of course, there’s always the risk of serious injury or death. In the United States alone, there were at least 160 wildland fire fatalities between 2008 and 2017 according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
“To those that say they’re never scared, baloney,” Berino said. “The key is staying ahead of the fire and having respect for what it can do. There are times when the hair on the back of your neck goes up. There are times when the fire is just marching to its own tune, and you have to just respect that. It’s not a time or place to be a hero. It’s just not.”
Editor’s note: This is part three of a four-part series about wildfires. Part four publishes Aug. 15.