At the time of this writing, most of the Western United States have (or have had) wildland fires burning in them. Much is written about wildland urban interface (WUI), but what about when wildfire strikes as it often does in rural areas of the country. These wildland events often affect and overwhelm rural fire departments and their resources. I know this from first-hand experience. In 2012, the Mustang Complex fire in central eastern Idaho (the largest wildland fire in the United States at the time) burned from July to November and consumed nearly 350,000 acres of our forests. It also literally burned down to the back door of my firehouse.
We learned lots of lessons from that fire. We learned how woefully unprepared we were, despite the chief’s thought that we were well-trained, equipped, and outfitted. As the deputy chief of department at that time, I respectfully submit that we learned that we were none of those. As I travel this country, visiting many rural fire departments, I’ve also learned that there are lots of departments in similar circumstances to those we were in during 2012.
For the edification of others who may read this piece and not understand how or why this could occur, it is important to remember that rural volunteer firefighters swear the same oath that our urban brothers and sisters do. We are not wildland firefighters. Our duty is to protect the lives and property of those residents and businesses located within the boundaries of our fire districts. Regardless of cost share agreements or cooperative agreements, rural fire departments are NOT an extension of the United States Forest Service (USFS). This is in no way said as a slight to the USFS. By policy, the USFS does not, and will not fight structure fires; that is our job.
Rural fire departments typically don’t have the staffing or the budgets to afford a separate wildland division. However, these budgetary constraints don’t necessarily preclude us from wildfire readiness. Preventive maintenance and truck checks that include air filter and tire checks are a good place to start. Many of us carry MREs (meals ready to eat), and electrolyte replacements on the rigs for extended deployments, but do we check to make sure they’re not opened, (because we never steal just the good stuff out of MREs) torn, or expired? Make sure your hot weather rehab supplies and equipment (even if it’s just the air conditioning in the trucks) are good to go. Do your people know the difference between wildland hose and structural hose? Don’t shoot the messenger. You’d be shocked to learn how much wildland hose I’ve found racked in structural apparatus hosebeds in rural departments across the west.
Let’s take a look at some of the things commercially available today to help keep our people safe and ready in the event of a wildland event that impacts your department.
Remember that structural turnout/bunker gear is not recommended for use in general wildland operations as the probability of structural interior fire attack is extremely unlikely. A number of personal protective equipment (PPE) manufacturers now make lightweight PPE that are NFPA-compliant for both wildland and rescue use. These products can be invaluable for a number of reasons. The lightweight flame-resistant fabrics allow for freedom of movement that bunker gear does not. The drastic reduction of heat stress occurrence is another great feature. This PPE typically costs less than half of what a set of bunker gear costs. I am personally a fan of this gear for another unconventional reason as well. In typical wildland events, everybody and their brother is wearing standard issue forest green colored nomex pants and yellow nomex over shirts. This dual-rated lightweight PPE that I speak of look a lot like turnout gear without the thermal liners. Having my staff in this type of gear allows me to instantly identify my personnel in a sea of green and yellow outfitted wildland people. Accountability is made much easier this way.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention training. In addition to taking a wildland firefighter survival class (T130), most USFS or Bureau of Land Management offices with fire stations are happy to come out to your department and train with you. Just learning and refreshing yourselves on how they do things can be great training opportunities. Hose lays, setting up sprinkler arrays for structure protection, lock-offs, and drafting exercises are all beneficial to rural training programs—especially for this time of year.
Have you preplanned your district or response areas? Do you know where all your alternate water sources are located? Are you proficient at drafting (often a lost skill) and relaying water? Finally, do you know if creek, stream, and irrigation ditch bridges are rated for the weight of EACH of your apparatus? Each and every year, fire apparatus fall through unrated bridges, causing damages to apparatus and injury to firefighters. Worst of all, when this happens the fire department becomes a large part of the “problem” rather than the “solution” to the problem.
As rural volunteer departments, you can only do as much as you can do, especially in the event of wildland fires that impact your area. Remembering your department’s mission, making sure your equipment and apparatus are up for the task, and making sure that your personnel are trained and educated will all go a long way toward safely making it through wildfire season. Stay safe!
CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He served as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.