One of the themes for this month’s issue is wildland fires. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit I have no experience with these types of fires-zero, zilch, nada. While I do have a professional interest in all types of fires, my exposure, in this case, is solely what I have read or seen. I am certain that many firefighters are in the same boat regarding this, especially those in urban or suburban settings or in particular parts of the country where this threat is relatively low. However, almost every fire department responds to some type of vegetation burning.
Take Them Seriously
The initial reaction to a call for this type of fire can be, “Big deal.” This is not a good approach. Although the direct risk to firefighters in many of these circumstances is minimal, there are cases of injuries and deaths while responding to and working at these incidents. Recently the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) released a line-of-duty-death (LODD) report on a firefighter who was killed and another seriously injured while extinguishing a small grass fire on the side of a highway. It was not the fire operation but a vehicle that caused the tragedy. A review of other incidents reveals instances of firefighters suffering from cardiac issues because of the strenuous work that may take place, often in high temperatures. The point here is that even though the vast majority of these types of responses are not especially complex or taxing to the fire department, there is a risk. Fire departments and firefighters must not become complacent when responding to grass, brush, and field fires.
Often fires are by the side of the road or highway, along railroad tracks, or off the beaten path. Usually the threat is minimal to life and property, but smoke conditions can create the potential for ancillary issues. This means that fire departments must be efficient and effective in their approach while also recognizing that some of the dangers might not be so obvious. Organizations and firefighters must remain vigilant and fight off complacency. Though the actual fire itself could be simple to extinguish, it does not mean you should let you guard down.
Firefighters should go through an annual review and refresher covering grass, brush, and field fires regardless of the potential size. This does not have to be lengthy or complex and serves as much to increase awareness as it does to review actual tactical considerations. You should go over the types of fires that are likely based on history and potential. The possibilities may be weather-dependent. Areas that receive minimal rain are obviously more susceptible. Occurrences of these fires can also be based on the climate of an area or weather patterns during a particular year. As grass and brush dry, they become easier to ignite and sustain combustion. You should always be aware of the potential in your response district.
Knowing the potential for where and how big a fire you might encounter can help you plan and prepare. Early in my career, the community where I worked actually had some large land areas that were undeveloped. Late in the summer when things dried out, it was not unusual to have a fire, occasionally covering many acres. I don’t want to overhype the size of the fires. Wildland firefighters would just laugh. But a response was necessary and an expectation that the fire would be extinguished existed. There was no threat to occupied areas and the fields usually returned greener and lusher. The only protection to be concerned about was the smoke development and the direction it was traveling. Even though most of those cases had a natural fire break and would have eventually burned themselves out, it made sense to minimize the burn time and extinguish the fire as quickly as possible.
Preparing for the Response
Knowing you have the potential should tell you that you must be prepared. First, you will need the equipment necessary for this type of fire. If you are likely to be off the road, you will require easily deployable portable equipment. This could include water can extinguishers (possibly units that can be worn on the backs of the firefighters), brooms, and shovels. Often departments will remove this equipment during the winter months and during times when the threat is virtually nonexistent. They need to remember to have the equipment available before the need arises. While maintenance is minimal, make sure the extinguishers work.
In response districts not likely to be too far from a hose stretch, the choice could be to not add specific grass fire tools and rely on the basics of tank water delivered through preconnected hoses. In this case, the tool preparation is not necessary. Some departments have vehicles that can travel off road and therefore are able to use the equipment, water, and hose on the truck. Communities with grass fire potential along roadways and railroads may be able to minimize specialized equipment needs but should occasionally review their practices to make sure they are prepared.
The biggest safety concern for most fire departments regarding grass fires is the danger involved with working alongside the roadway. Before the grass fire season begins, take the time to review apparatus placement. Also review response procedures. You should dispatch enough apparatus for the fire and to protect firefighters working in close proximity to the roadway. Operations should mirror the safety procedures established for working at the scene of an injury/accident.
The final consideraion is the health and wellness of your firefighters. Fighting grass and brush fires can be strenuous. Too often this is downplayed, and organizations do not consider the need for adequate response or establishing rehab for those firefighters who are working. Remember, this work is often done in high atmospheric temperatures and in full turnout gear. The incident commander and everyone else on the scene must be conscious of possible overheating. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate, and take appropriate breaks. Even if it seems relatively minor, have enough personnel just in case.
Responding to grass, brush, and field fires in many communities is considered no more than a nuisance. They are not even close to the threat that exists in the true wildland or urban interface areas. Yet, like virtually all calls, there is a risk to firefighters. Preparation and combating complacency are essential so that a seemingly simple incident doesn’t turn tragic.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.