Fighting Changing Fires

Issue 4 and Volume 10.

The 2104 fire season is now history. However, much like the 2013 fire season, 2014 demonstrated once again that an era of supersized catastrophic wildfires seems to be on our nation. Statistical and factual-based information all point to this reality. A “new normal” is here, and we in the fire service, at all levels, need to acknowledge and accept this fact. It is only once we have fully embraced the idea of an age of large fires that are immensely devastating to life, property, and the environment that we can begin to discuss ways to mitigate those fires.

This acceptance, or at least thoughtful consideration and discussion, is of critical importance to current fire service leaders. It is important because it ties together so many of the critical issues we face as leaders when engaged in managing and suppressing wildland fires: the age-old challenge of incident commanders (ICs) balancing risk vs. gain; the human factors of personnel who want to protect life, property, and the environment; and fire environment conditions that have been developing for more than a century into the explosive reality we are responding to each fire season. The topic is also important because, despite all our modern technology, we are still seeing huge losses of life, destruction of property, and serious environmental impacts. Yes, our duty to respond and protect is a fact, a strong emotional component to most firefighters, but with today’s fire behavior, success in that duty is sometimes not possible.

Ethical Attack

Whether you are an initial attack IC of a wildland urban interface (WUI) fire, or the IC of an established team on a campaign fire, the question remains: Are we ethically engaging these intense fires? At all levels of suppression, we need to constantly evaluate the risks and employed strategies and tactics during the incident. This scrutiny is required more than ever before because fires are presenting such extreme behavior. This constant reassessment will hopefully ensure that the operation is effective, is safe, and has a favorable outcome. I am in no way saying that this doesn’t currently occur in incident management, but a discussion will serve as a reminder that today’s incidents exhibit behavior at a level not seen before. Therefore, we need to collectively apply prudent incident management at a level not seen before. The game has changed, and we need to adapt.

It is my intent to facilitate ongoing conversation in our industry about the choices we make in the fire service during wildland fire suppression. What are we, as leaders, asking our assigned resources to do? If we are faced with these extreme fire behavior conditions year after year, how are we preparing for success? This topic is rich with tough questions and wrought with peril, but the tough questions must be asked. Our fellow firefighters require it, the public requires it, and our own personal safety requires it. We must never falter in our pursuit of answers and solutions. We must never stop asking questions whose possible answers collectively steer us to a safer fire service.

Numerous difficult questions must be asked about how we address these fires, fires that compose an almost unsurpassable challenge. Regardless, leaders must ask them. Some of these questions include the following:

  •  Is it ethical for us to ask personnel to engage in traditional suppression strategies and expect them to be safe and successful?
  •  Have we done our best to ensure that proper training and a briefing about current conditions have occurred prior to engagement?
  •  Have we built an organization that can safely respond to the current incidents?
  •  Have we developed new tactics and methods to ensure we have changed just like the fuel loading has changed?
  •  Have we thoughtfully considered the implications of engagement?

These are ethical questions that need to be discussed collectively. By no means do they comprise an all-inclusive list; they are merely a starting point.

Fire Alterations

Current statistics and facts clearly demonstrate a significant increase in wildfire incident intensity—facts that point to the reality of a “new normal.” In the past decade alone we have set records for acreage consumed and rates of spread. We have seen intensity and tallied cost of suppression, repair, and losses, with total numbers almost unimaginable. Fires are responding in intensity to the accumulation of fuels, the expansion of human development, the growth of infrastructure to support development, and the fact that we as a fire service have been very effective in suppressing fires for more than a century. Our effectiveness has created the most volatile fuel bed that wildland fire suppression forces have ever encountered.

In 2013, I was a part of the initial attack resources on the Rim Fire—the third largest fire in California history—which burned more than 257,000 acres. It was after that experience that I began to process the unbelievable change in fire behavior I have seen over my career. In its first seven days, the Rim Fire exhibited exponential growth. This almost unprecedented extreme behavior and fire growth culminated in a run of more than 60,000 acres in one afternoon.

I would like to illustrate this modern fact of ridiculously extreme fire behavior with another fact: In the summer of 1987, the Stanislaus Complex Fire, in the Stanislaus National Forest (CA), was a collection of lightning-caused fires that eventually grew to a size of more than 145,000 acres over a six-week period. In contrast, the Rim Fire, a human-caused, single-point source of ignition, passed the burned acreage of the Stanislaus Complex in only eight days.

The numerous issues imbedded in the reality of a new era of extreme fire did not manifest overnight—nor will the solution. This combination of effective fire suppression, corresponding fuel loading increases, and ever increasing “values at risk,” mixed with climate change, have been more than a century in the making. These factors have now combined to exhibit massively devastating fire behavior—fire behavior that is killing people, costing large amounts of money to suppress and repair, and not likely to change soon. We will be dealing with these issues for the foreseeable future.

Looking Ahead

I in no way want to be misinterpreted as inferring that leaders in the past have been unethical in their command decisions or actions. Instead, I want to focus attention on current conditions. I want you to think about this large problem and begin to discuss with coworkers, leadership, students, administrators, legislators, and community members how to find solutions to the problems I have only barely identified. There are more issues, and we need to find them, expose them, and mitigate them. Only through thoughtful consideration and discussion can we possibly arrive at conclusions that establish mitigating factors to the current condition and challenges. Over time, emergency responders have had to adapt to the conditions. This era is no different. I want people to think about the risks involved in today’s fire environment and thoroughly evaluate them prior to engaging.

I wish there was quick and easy solution, but there isn’t; nor do I believe one exists. This is a highly complex issue, and it will require a very complex and demanding solution. I do, however, want to put forth the idea that recognition of the extreme volatility in the current fire environment is on its own a mitigating factor. If fire service leaders recognize and acknowledge the conditions, if they insert a pause of evaluation, then at that moment we have collectively started to reduce risk by engaging only where it is safe, successful, and effective.

One concept that I would like all suppression personnel to consider is the idea of being tactically nimble. If we adapt and become fluid in our tactics, then we can be precise. When nimble, we can quickly identify and capitalize on opportunities when the fire environment presents a target window, and we can pause in a position of safety when conditions do not appear to allow any success. We need to discuss, train on, and employ tactics that encourage strong situational awareness, solid understanding of the dynamic interaction of the fire environment variables, and target recognition.

The structural side of the fire service has adapted to the increased volatility and explosive nature of modern construction and the compressed fuel-rich environments of the structure’s contents. Training has been adapted, tactics developed, personal protective equipment (PPE) modified, and studies performed, all in an effort to better understand the problem and perform our jobs as firefighters safely.

I would like to see that same level of scrutiny and resources dedicated to evaluating and modifying tactics, PPE, and training to respond to the changed fuel conditions in the wildland. This all starts with recognition of the changed conditions. Then, collectively, we can do what we in the fire service have done for centuries: adapt to the conditions and use human ingenuity to develop ways to identify, educate, prepare, train, respond, and operate safely in this “new normal.”