Fire Fighting in Canada

Features Wildfire Week
Welcome to wildland fire fighting

August 25, 2023 
By David Moseley


Canadian Forest Service firefighters in Petawawa in 1990 (the author, David Moseley, is pictured on right). Photo courtesy of David Moseley.

Editor’s Note: When David Moseley, a longtime wildland firefighter contributor to Fire Fighting in Canada, learned that his stepson and his girlfriend were headed off to do contract wildfire fighting for the first time, he was compelled to sit down and share some of the valuable lessons he learned over his many decades on the frontlines. He then shared his letter with Fire Fighting in Canada, and we like nothing more than sharing experience amongst the fire service! With his blessing, here is the advice he offered his loved ones. Thank you Dave!

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Hello,

Well, gosh, you are starting wildland fire fighting. I feel the need to try to share some of my knowledge and experience. You had your training, you will have your supervision, I know that. However, one of my sayings (I have a lot of them!) is that in over 30 years of fire fighting, they have all gone out. The fire is really not the important thing. Your safety is. So, I will try to share a few pearls.

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Fire Behaviour

Keep learning, studying, and asking questions of the old hands. I learn on every fire still. Be curious and engaged. While you are new and will need to focus on your tasks, you also need to observe what’s going on around you. That’s kind of the definition of situational awareness and it is what keeps you safe. While it takes time to learn the tasks, the more you learn and know your work, the more attention and brain power you have to watch the big picture. This should be really obvious and prominent in your supervisors; they should be looking at the big picture and not overly focused on tasks.  Some new supervisors are very task oriented because that’s what they know, and that’s not great. Firefighters should be head down working, but supervisors better have their heads up and on a swivel.

You will have learned about the wildland fire behaviour triangle. Here are a few key points for each part to review.

Fuel: The biggest hazard is fine flashy fuels, and in Canada that usually means grass.  It is starting to cure now, dry out and die, so it will become increasingly easy to burn.  The hazard of a wall of black spruce burning is obvious, but grass is something people underestimate and fire can move through it fast; with enough wind faster than you can run. Two metre flames are not uncommon in grass and can kill you. If you find yourself surrounded by unburned grass on a windy day near a fire, that’s not great. Follow your LACES.

Weather: Wind is the biggest danger. Thunderstorms and cold front passage are often the worst, as both wind direction and speed can change rapidly and unpredictably. Pay attention to the forecast and also observable wind changes.

Also be aware of the burning period and peak burn. Fire often sits down and looks harmless before noon, when temperatures are lower and humidity is higher. Between noon and 7:00 pm is peak burn and what was nothing in the morning can take off.

Crossover is when temperature in degrees Celsius is higher than relative humidity in percentage.  That means fire will ignite and spread easily, smouldering fire can ignite into open flame, and of course this usually occurs during peak burn period.

Topography: You will likely be working in the mountains where both topography, and it’s interaction with weather, can be more complex. So, again pay attention and learn.  The biggest thing though, is slope. It’s very simple. On steep ground, fire moves faster, and you move slower. Factor that into you thinking.

In Mann Gulch, Storm King, and many multi-fatality fires, the three common factors were fine flashy fuels, steep slopes, and unexpected changes in wind speed/direction.  Always think of that.

Pony Creek Fire, Alberta, June 2023. Photo credit: Government of Alberta

LACES

Acronyms are a pain, but 18 watch outs, 10 fire orders…sure worth studying but you can’t remember them in a pinch and need to focus. So, there’s LACES. I go so far as to focus primarily on two of them – COMMUNICATIONS and SAFETY ZONES.

There should be communications with all firefighters at all times. I hope every individual firefighter has a radio. If not, you must have someone in your immediate work group with a radio. Always know your supervisor’s and your call-sign and ensure you can contact each other. Lookouts should be communicating and know what they are looking at, and what is important to communicate. You shouldn’t be assigned that role with your experience, if you are, be very clear on trigger points — what you are looking out for.  Often, we just default to all supervisors, all aircraft, as lookouts.

Safety Zones are often the black, burned area, and that’s great, I love it. Consider a few things though. It should be big enough, allow you, say, two times the flame length in clearance from unburned threatened fuel. That could be four metres, it could be 200 metres. Be wary if your black is just surface burned with dried out but unburned crown fuels, especially with ladder fuels. Really I don’t believe that IS a safety zone. Also consider alternate, updated safety zones as your work area changes and you progress down the line. Always know where your safety zone is. Escape Routes get you there and Anchor Points (which some leave out and just use LCES) simply means starting your fire line from a safety zone. Walking 300 metres through unburned fuel to the fire is not anchoring. We always like to anchor, but only insist on it in higher fire hazard conditions, when it is likely the fire may move faster than we can.

LACES are no joke — know them and follow them. Following LACES is the reason we don’t use fire shelters in Canada (though they have at times in B.C. and may again now). We focus on avoiding entrapment by following LACES, rather than surviving being burned over. I have only ever experienced very cautious and preventative use of safety zones, where firefighters were sent there out of caution rather than clear or immediate need (likely entrapment).  That is a good thing and good leaders will give that direction calmly without alarming firefighters. Being sent to your safety zone doesn’t mean it was a close call.  However, if you are ever ordered, or determine yourself the need, to access your safety zone in an emergency, remember only two things: DROP EVERYTHING AND RUN.

Other Safety

Of course, fire entrapment is not the only hazard. Heat (hydrate!), bears, driving (the most dangerous thing we do) and working around helicopters. My one piece of advice working around helicopters is to slow it down. I consciously slow down my movements, and move slowly and smoothly with eyes on the rotors, the ground/footing, the pilot.  Don’t rush around helicopters.

And, of course, trees are a danger. I have been guilty of carrying on as the trees fall around me. Don’t do that. Root burn will make it worse, black spruce and tamarack are bad for root burn, and aspen and poplar may just be falling apart anyway. Winds increase the hazard. If trees are coming down you should back out. You may need a spotter. Discuss with your supervisor.

PPE

I have always found safety glasses way more practical than goggles. It’s a good idea to wear them all the time, however I insist on them only for the person on the nozzle.

Wear your gloves. Grit on hoses will cut your hands, and soot means carcinogens. You do not want black hands, it’s not cool.

Some firefighters think it is cool to have filthy sooty Nomex, that it shows what a mean dude you are. That’s ridiculous when soot equals carcinogens. I am curious how long you are expected to wear the same Nomex, how much they issue you. I would prefer a clean set every day for what you’re doing, realistically I don’t know what they provide or expect.

Speaking of carcinogens, the best way to handle smoke is stay out of it. You can’t always do that, but most often you can (mopping up, start from upwind). If they give you respiratory protection use it as directed, however what really helps is avoidance.

Ash pits are another serious hazard with it being so dry. Make sure your trouser bottoms are sealed. Velcro straps may be adequate, or you may need to use electrical tape. Think of it as getting a soaker, except hot ash and coals in your boot instead of water. You don’t want that.

Well I’ll leave it at that, those are the highlights.  That and follow your gut, they’re only trees.  Have fun, stay safe and of course, don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

The author at Lac La Biche County wildfire in May 2021. Photo credit: Lac La Biche County

David Moseley is a forest officer with the Government of Alberta, and officer with Lac La Biche County Fire Rescue in Alberta, focused on operations. His other areas of interest include instructing, CISM and wildfire investigation. Contact him at david.moseley@gov.ab.ca.


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