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Trainer’s Corner: Sizeup key to fighting interface fires

Sizeup key to fighting interface fires

December 6, 2007 
By Ed Brouwer

U.S. forest service says a campfire caused the wildfire that burned
more than 200 homes near Lake Tahoe in late June. Wildland-urban
interface areas exist wherever residential, industrial, or agricultural
structures are located within or adjacent to trees and other
combustible vegetation. Wildfires that have the potential to involve
buildings and wildland vegetation simultaneously are known as interface

As in many other locations around the world, the threat
of interface fires in Canada is increasing and so are the economic and
social impacts. For example, in Canada in 1998, interface fires forced
the evacuation of 18,000 residents and another 46,000 were placed on
evacuation alert. Then, in 2003, there were three firefighter
fatalities, 335 homes lost or damaged, 38,009 people evacuated and
148,695 hectares lost to fire in B.C. alone.

interface fires present a unique set of challenges and obstacles. Large
wildland-urban interface fires, by their size, location and risks,
frequently require the co-ordinated efforts of fire fighting agencies
with differing missions, training and equipment.

Wildland fire fighting
firefighters generally respond to forest fires with a mission to
protect valuable natural resources that are usually found in remote
areas with limited water supplies. There may be a delay in discovering
and reporting fires in remote areas; consequently, these fires tend to
be larger when firefighters arrive. Extreme fire behaviour conditions
produce high fire spread rates and intensities that rapidly involve
large areas.


Wildland firefighters are trained and equipped to
clear the fuel around the outside of the fire perimeter so that the
fire cannot continue to spread. A large fire's perimeter can extend for
many miles.

Structural fire fighting
Structural firefighters are trained to attack fires at individual
and protect adjoining buildings. These firefighters usually rely on
water systems providing ready access to piped water for direct fire
suppression. Fire crews are equipped and located within a community to
provide a response time of mere minutes, so that a fire can be
contained in one or a few rooms, with the rest of the structure and
contents saved.

The fire suppression situation becomes
complicated when the wildland vegetation mixes with people and their
homes and other structures. When the wildland fire can ignite
structures, the standard wildland and structural fire suppression
procedures may not be effective, particularly under extreme conditions.
Both wildland and structural firefighters must adjust in these
situations. Wildland firefighters may be faced with protecting a
neighborhood in the path of a large fire. Terms like thermal layer,
flashover or rollover may not be understood by some of these
firefighters. Then again, some structural firefighters may not
understand terms like candeling, crown fire, 30/30 crossover or control
line. A tanker is no longer an apparatus that brings water but rather a
very expense air attack plane. Cross training is imperative if we are
going to be succeseful in dealing with interface situations.

Take time to size up the situation
firefighters may be faced with fire behaviour conditions that were not
part of their wildland or structural training, it is especially
important to take time to size up the fire situation before committing
to any action that could put a fire crew in danger. Emphasis should be
placed on size-up factors of fuels, weather and topography. Take
advantage of local information such as daily winds and history of
previous fires and their behaviour. Sizeup should be ongoing.

Safety as a personal responsibility
firefighters are responsible for their own safety and well being.
Several areas are totally within the individual's control and
particularly affected by individual decisions.

Physical fitness
activities are strenuous and often require firefighters to work at near
maximal heart rates for long periods. The increase in heart rate has
been shown to begin with responding to the initial alarm and persist
through the course of fire suppression activities.

A large
volume of medical literature details the relationship between physical
fitness and cardiac health. Regular exercise programs have a
demonstrated record of reducing heart attacks. This is especially
important to individuals who are over 40 years old and who may not live
an active lifestyle until called on for fire suppression.

firefighters make personal choices not to exercise they increase the
risk of injury or illness under emergency conditions and may also put
other nearby firefighters in danger.

Safe driving practices
accidents are responsible for a high percentage of firefighter
fatalities. Many of those kinds of deaths have been unrelated to fire
behaviour at the time of the accident but rather occurred as a result
of unsafe driving on the way to a fire due to an incorrect assumption
of a need for haste. Undue haste is often detrimental to the
firefighter. These kinds of decisions are entirely within the control
of the firefighter driving the vehicle.

Volunteer firefighters
have a much higher percentage of vehicle-related deaths. This may be
due to a lack of training but it is the individual who makes a personal
decision to operate a heavy piece of equipment without adequate
training and experience. Instructors must remind firefighters of their
personal responsibility for safe driving, not only for the driver's
safety but for every firefighter riding in that apparatus. Do not
overlook the danger of driving back to base after a long day on the
fireline. Driver fatigue is a huge factor in MVI.

The size of
many fires in the wildland-urban interface means that they may take
days or weeks to be controlled and more days before complete

During extended fire attack, everyone must be
especially conscious of the effects of fatigue. It has been well said:
"Fighting fires in the interface is a lot like running a marathon, with
an occasional sprint to save your life."

Your safety strategy
should also recognize that you need to preserve your energy for the
long haul. There may be periods of just waiting. During these down
times, staying safe means knowing how to rest without losing focus. The
one time that you get tired or confused could be the one time that
you'll need to react quickly and intelligently in order to save

The firefighters' equipment should also be geared
for extended operations. Sometimes municipal firefighters show up in
full turnout gear for an interface fire. This equipment is ideal for
fighting structural fires but it is cumbersome in the interface and has
caused preventable heat stress and exhaustion injuries. Lightweight
gear commonly used by wildland firefighters is better suited for
interface conditions.

Until next time stay safe and remember to train your members like their lives depend on it.

Ed Brouwer is the Fire Chief/Training Officer for Canwest Fire and a
member of the Osoyoos (B.C.) Fire Dept. The 18-year veteran fire
fighter is also a Fire Warden with Ministry of Forests, a First
Responder III instructor/evaluator, Local Assistant to the Fire
Commissioner and a fire service motivational speaker and chaplain.
E-mail .

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