Fire Fighting in Canada

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Trainer’s Corner: Fighting wildfires

June 28, 2023 
By Ed Brouwer


There are three key factors that influence fire behaviour: Weather, fuel, and topography. PHOTO CREDIT: SHUANL/ISTOCK

Although we have already entered the 2023 wildland fire season, it is never too late to review firefighter safety. Rather than subjecting your fellow firefighters to a ton of verbiage, try this method of review.

Divide your members into four groups. Give each group a workstation (table and chairs), lots of paper and pens to take notes and any wildland suppression instructional manuals you may have at the fire hall. If your hall has internet service, allow groups to search the web for additional information.

Beforehand, make up four question sheets using the following outlines. The objective is to have each group research their particular set of questions. They will then take those questions and answers and put together a 10-minute presentation to be shared with the whole group.

Group 1

  1. What are the three elements of the Wildland Fire Triangle?
  2. List three factors about weather that can influence fire behaviour.
  3. What is Candling?
  4. What is referred to as the 30/30 cross concept?
  5. What are the Six Rankings of Fire Intensity?
  6. What does the acronym LCES stand for?
  7. Describe “Lookouts” in the LCES System of Safe Work Procedures.
  8. Describe how a wildfire can create its own weather system.

Group 2

  1. List the three methods of attack used in Wildland Fire Suppression.
  2. Write a short description of each attack method.
  3. List the three types of fuel.
  4. What are ladder fuels? Why are they dangerous?
  5. How do the four levels of fuel affect fire behaviour?
  6. What does the acronym LCES stand for?
  7. Describe “Communications” in the LCES System of Safe Work Procedures (include calling a Mayday).
  8. When troubleshooting a water pump, what does the acronym GAS stand for?

Group 3

  1. What are the three elements of the Wildland Fire Triangle?
  2. List three factors about topography that can influence fire behaviour.
  3. List some examples of dangerous topography.
  4. List six things that should be discussed during crew briefing.
  5. What are five basic fireline hazards?
  6. What does the acronym LCES stand for?
  7. Describe “Escape Routes” in the LCES System of Safe Work Procedures.
  8. What are the two ways wildland fires spread?

Group 4

  1. What are the three elements of the Wildland Fire Triangle?
  2. List three factors about fuel that can influence fire behaviour.
  3. What is a crown fire?
  4. What is a hot spot?
  5. What should you do if you discover a hot spot?
  6. List several unsafe personal behaviours.
  7. What does the acronym LCES stand for?
  8. Describe “Safety Zones” in the LCES System of Safe Work Procedures. 

These eight questions should keep them busy enough without overwhelming them. And when each group has presented their findings, most of the basics will have been covered.

As the training officer, you may need to refresh your understanding of the questions so you can keep your members on the right track.

Review your Safe Work Directives regarding Dangerous Trees, Fire Behaviour Advisories and Red Flag Warnings, Heavy Equipment and Aerial Support.

I thought it may help if I shared a few personal fire line memories.

It was Aug. 16 at 11:00 am. We were dispatched to a lightning strike. Although an MOF initial attack crew, two helicopters and three CL 415 air tankers had been actioning the fire since early morning, the fire seemed to be gaining momentum. In a typical fire season, a lightning strike is not a “big” deal, however there was nothing typical about this fire season. After three years of unusually dry weather, British Columbia was ready to explode.

There are three key factors that influence fire behaviour: Weather, fuel, and topography. Any one of these factors at their extreme can cause erratic fire behaviour. When, as in our case, all three were at their extreme ends, you get erratic, unpredictable conflagrations, and far too often unforgettable fire behaviour.

There had not been any significant rainfall for several months. The winds were in excess of 60 km/h, the temperature was over 30 C and the RH below 30 per cent (30/30 cross). If this occurs on the fire line, you can expect extreme fire behaviour.

The initial fire spread is influenced by wind speed and wind direction.  Rate of spread was in excess of 50 miles per minute. The wind picked up at 12:30, driving spot fires ahead of the main fire. This fire would grow to over 1000 hectares by the next day.

The fuel moisture content in all three classes, or layers, of forest fuel — fine fuel (surface), duff [five to10 cm deep) and deep duff [10 to 20 cm deep) — were at the absolute extremes. All indicators pointed to rapid spread rates, intense fires, and extensive involvement of the fuel layer.

The duff layer, which rests on top of the soil layer, was two to three feet deep in places. The fire simply burned under the retardant that had been dropped.

You may remember that for every 25 degrees increase of slope the rate of spread doubles. The fuel is preheated and ignites more rapidly.

The direction a slope faces is called aspect. South aspect slopes, such as in this park, produce low fuel moisture contents, finer fuels and a have greater rate of spread and/or ignition.

We also had to deal with kilometres of canyons, valleys, and rock bluffs. Squally Point has the unique distinction of being the place where winds split. A portion flows along the lake toward the city of Kelowna, the other portion flows along the lake towards the town of Naramata. This factor would often drive the fire in two directions at the same time. If that wasn’t bad enough, Wild Horse Canyon, which cuts across Okanagan Mountain Park, has openings on both sides of Squally Point.

All these things caused erratic gusting winds, changing direction and force. Circular winds caused dust devils that were at times 100 metres in the air.

We discovered that these high winds caused spotting up to 3.2 kilometres ahead of the fire. The high winds drove the fire over the guards with such intensity that it devoured our bladders, hose lines and medivac kits. Over the next few days, we would find out exactly just how vicious this fire dragon was going to be. In one day, it grew from 2,000 hectares to more than 11,000. Fire fighting conditions were the worst fire officials had ever seen.

On Aug. 21 the fire made a run towards Kelowna. Fire apparatus from all over British Columbia and Alberta converged on Kelowna in an attempt to stop this dragon. In spite of the unprecedented and valiant efforts of those on the fire ground, over 250 homes were destroyed.

Much of the manpower and equipment was released around Sept. 20. More than 30 days had passed since we were dispatched to that single tree lightning strike, now 25,600 hectares were burned, 238 homes were lost or destroyed, 12 wooden trestles in Myra Canyon were vaporized and decks on two steel trestles burned. Evacuees numbered 27,050 plus 4,050 re-evacuated. The maximum resources used at one point were 700 personnel, 250 pieces of heavy equipment, and 20 helicopters.

A few notes regarding LCES: The acronym LCES stands for Lookouts, Communications, Escape routes and Safety zones. These elements form a safety system used by wildland firefighters to protect themselves from entrapment and other fire line hazards. LCES was developed by Paul Gleason as a direct response to the tragic loss of life on wildland fire and to condense The Ten Standard Firefighting orders and Eighteen Watchout Situations along with other checklists into an easily remembered acronym.

Lookouts: Lookouts should be experienced firefighters that can continually size-up a fire. More than one Lookout may be required. They need to be set up at good vantage points. They must have updated knowledge of crew locations, escape routes and safety zones.  It is also of great importance that they understand trigger issues (when to call for a retreat or evacuation of crews.

Communications: Radio frequencies must be confirmed. Check in times should be established at the crew safety briefing. Firefighters must remain in constant communications with the entire fire line organization and ensure that all information is understood and passed on. They are responsible to warn other firefighters of identified fire hazards. Firefighters should not be working alone or out of earshot of other crew members.

Escape routes: These must be scouted out, tested and timed (escape time versus ROS).  They should be flagged (for night and day).  We flagged on the left of the trail going to the fire so that “Right” would indicate the flight direction. Park apparatus prepared for quick escape. The effectiveness of escape routes changes continuously, due to fire behaviour. The most common escape route is the fire line.

There must always be more than one escape route that leads to an effective safety zone. A single escape route may be cut off.

Safety zones: These are planned locations where firefighters, threatened by fire hazards, may find adequate refuge from danger. The effectiveness of a safety zone is dependent on its ability to allow all firefighters to shelter from heat, smoke, rolling debris, falling timber, snags, etc. The burned area (the black) may be the best and simplest, but also consider water sources, clear cuts, or roads. Safety zones are NOT upslope, not in the smoke and not in heavy fuels. And DO NOT use caves as the oxygen could be sucked out by the fire.

A number of years ago the letter ‘A’ was added, making it LACES.  The “A” stood for anchor points.

Anchor points: These are designed to minimize the chance of being outflanked by a fire while line is being constructed. An anchor point is a barrier, such as a road, river, or area without fire fuels from which to start building a fire break or line. We covered this point by having a second crew cut line in the opposite direction. We would begin at the back and work the opposite flanks heading toward the head.

Regarding your personal comfort, have a “Go Bag”. Go to each fire expecting a lengthy day. A backpack with overnight provisions is highly recommended. A warm jacket, extra socks, any personal medications, toilet paper, a few power bars and power drinks are recommended. You may never have to use these items, but I can’t tell you how many wildfires we went to as a volunteer fire department in the middle of the day that lasted well into the next day. There is always a chance with wildfires that the incident could turn into multiple days or weeks. Be prepared.

Until next time please stay safe out there, and remember to train like lives depend on it, because it most certainly does! 
4-9-4 Ed Brouwer


Ed Brouwer is the chief instructor for Canwest Fire in Osoyoos, B.C., retired deputy chief training officer for Greenwood Fire and Rescue, a fire warden, wildland urban interface fire-suppression instructor and ordained disaster-response chaplain. Contact aka-opa@hotmail.com.


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