Written by Peter Sells
May 22, 2012, Toronto - Ancient warfare and modern wildfire: Try saying that 10 times, quickly.
Over the last few weeks, the home page at firefightingincanada.com has listed stories on wildfires in Alberta and Saskatchewan, an open-fire ban in coastal British Columbia, and the release of a report on last year’s devastating Slave Lake fire. So, as we get ready for what might be a very busy and dangerous wildfire season, I would like to go back a couple of thousand years, give or take a few centuries, and revisit what the sage Gen. Sun Tzu had to say about attack by fire, back in the Warring States Period of ancient China.
I have always found Chapter XII of the Art of War to be of particularly ironic interest, given that Sun Tzu was expounding on the use of fire as a weapon to be used on opposing armies. So here is my spin on which of his lessons we can place into the context of wildfire protection:
XII. THE ATTACK BY FIRE
1. Sun Tzu said: There are five ways of attacking with fire. The first is to burn soldiers in their camp; the second is to burn stores; the third is to burn baggage trains; the fourth is to burn arsenals and magazines; the fifth is to hurl dropping fire amongst the enemy.
The message here is to view ourselves and our communities as the objects of the attack. Wildfire can kill people directly (first), can consume large quantities of material goods (second), can destroy or impede transportation infrastructure (third), and can burn up our fire protection resources (fourth) such as apparatus, equipment, encampments – and firefighters. Fifth, wildfire can spread through airborne, wind-driven brands and jump across natural or man-made firebreaks.
2. In order to carry out an attack, we must have means available. The material for raising fire should always be kept in readiness.
The direct corollary of this is that in order to mount a defence, we must have the means available. The planning, training, budgeting, resourcing, staffing and storehousing required for each wildfire season should always be kept in readiness.
3. There is a proper season for making attacks with fire, and special days for starting a conflagration.
4. The proper season is when the weather is very dry; the special days are those when the moon is in the constellations of the Sieve, the Wall, the Wing or the Cross-bar; for these four are all days of rising wind.
Again, from our position as the objects of Sun Tzu’s attack, we have to look at this from a defensive perspective. We have to be constantly aware of current and emergent conditions of weather and groundcover. Management of groundcover fuel loads can be a tedious and expensive task, but failure to tidy up after Mother Nature can be many times more so. By the way, don’t worry about the constellations thing; Sun Tzu didn’t have a weather channel app on his iPad.
5. In attacking with fire, one should be prepared to meet five possible developments:
(1) When fire breaks out inside to enemy's camp, respond at once with an attack from without.
(2) If there is an outbreak of fire, but the enemy's soldiers remain quiet, bide your time and do not attack.
Look at these two points as a reminder to prioritize the deployment of limited resources. A small fire threatening a town is a higher risk than a large fire consuming only trees.
(3) When the force of the flames has reached its height, follow it up with an attack, if that is practicable; if not, stay where you are.
(4) If it is possible to make an assault with fire from without, do not wait for it to break out within, but deliver your attack at a favorable moment.
Risk management, risk management, risk management. If an attack is not practicable, don’t unnecessarily place your people in harm’s way. If it is possible to make an assault on the fire, deliver your attack at a favourable moment of your choosing.
(5) When you start a fire, be to windward of it. Do not attack from the leeward.
Finally, we can agree with the general. Don’t place yourself downwind or uphill.
6. A wind that rises in the daytime lasts long, but a night breeze soon falls.
7. In every army, the five developments connected with fire must be known, the movements of the stars calculated, and a watch kept for the proper days.
I see these two points together as a good summary of the importance of situational awareness with respect to weather conditions, climate patterns, planning of priorities and constant risk management.
8. Hence those who use fire as an aid to the attack show intelligence; those who use water as an aid to the attack gain an accession of strength.
Of course, we can fight fire with fire, in the use of prescribed burns to create firebreaks. But I think there is a broader lesson in this last point, which we can take from the apparent paradox of using fire and water, both as an aid to the attack. The lesson is to have a comprehensive toolbox, or arsenal (since we are employing military analogies) of strategies, tactics and techniques at our disposal, in order to match the unique and changing circumstances of each wildfire event.
Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada branch, and is president of NivoNuvo Consulting, Inc. Contact him at