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Ben there, done that for Oct. 27, 2021

Wildland firefighting processes numerous, appreciated

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Wildfires – almost an inescapable fact of life around the northwest. Every year thousands upon thousands of acres of forest go up in smoke in the waning months of summer. Powerful, shifting wind patterns move smoke hundreds of miles resulting in unpredictable air quality: clear skies one day and thick haze the next. 

Several years ago, I was privileged to work as a member of the support personnel on a wildfire base camp with several hundred firefighters. Growing up experiencing fire season, I assumed that I understood the process of extinguishing wildfires. I discovered however, my knowledge of the task was very inaccurate. My experience was enlightening and grew my appreciation for wildland firefighters.

The whole undertaking begins of course when the fire is first spotted. The first indication of a burn can be documented by fire lookouts, recreators or flyovers. Once the first report comes in, basic scouting will proceed, often from the air, to assess where the fire is burning. Then, the first response is mobilized: smokejumpers if the terrain is untenable or small standby ground crews if the fire is in an accessible area. 

Once on the scene, the fire crew’s main priority is to halt the blaze in its tracks. While increasing in size in all directions, fires do so erratically. For example, fire burns at an accelerated rate moving up a slope or with a tailwind. Based on conditions and location, the fire crew will work to suppress the fire on the fastest moving side. Enter the construction of fire lines or fire breaks: long narrow strips of land where all fuel sources for the fires are removed. Ideally, the fire will burn up to the edge of the fire break and then be halted. Because fire requires flammable materials to spread, these are effective strategies to contain a blaze. 

Forest fires can consume entire trees; however, most fires build intensity and spread in forest underbrush. Thus, standing trees are often allowed to remain while nearly all the underbrush is removed. Crews will work to clear the area, leaving a bare dirt strip in their wake. Occasionally, smaller fires will be lit and monitored to consume all the fuel sources ahead of the primary blaze. Although a risky strategy, under certain conditions, this plan of action is implemented.

Containing the blaze with these fire lines is one of the most dangerous parts of fighting a fire. Forest fires can move at speeds of up to 7 miles per hour in dense foliage and up to 14 miles per hour in grasslands, which is often faster than a human can move in the same environment. With ever-changing conditions, crews must be vigilant to ensure the safety of the team. Becoming trapped by a wildfire can end tragically, so every precaution is taken as the crew works in the path of the oncoming blaze.

If the fire continues to grow, further teams can be dispatched to aid in the containment effort. Building strong fire breaks and ensuring the fire doesn’t jump them is the most challenging part of the process. Conditions like hot weather and wind can prove extremely challenging. Just one fateful spark jumping a fire break can destroy hours of labor spent in prevention.

Air support is also be used to drop either water or fire retardant on specific areas of the burn. Helicopters and airplanes are mostly used to combat “hot spots” or areas where the fire is burning more vigorously. Eliminating hot spots prevents the blaze from intensifying and becoming more resilient. Since budgets and availability are limited, air support is reserved for particularly problematic areas.

Once a fire has been sufficiently contained, the final phase of mop-up commences. At this point, the fire has run out of places to go and is left to burn itself out. As the fuel supply dwindles, a small team monitors the fire to make certain no unexpected flare-ups restart the fire. While under supervision, the fire smolders, slowly starving the flames completely or some autumn rain extinguishes it once and for all.

While the circumstances of every fire are unique, manpower and resources are essential to extinguish wildfires. This is all made possible by the thousands of dedicated forest firefighters who risk their lives to deal with these natural disasters. I for one and very thankful for what they do, and hope you are too.

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