Column: Behind the scenes of a wildfire

Published 10:23 pm Thursday, January 12, 2006

By Staff
All the media coverage of the fire scorched grounds of Oklahoma and Texas has kindled folk's fascination of wildfires and the men and women who subdue them. Unfortunately, TV doesn't go behind the scenes to show what's really going on so many people that know I'm a wildland fire fighter are asking how this fire business really works. It's not like you probably think. There are three basic levels of wildfires. The most prevalent are the small ones that flare up all across the country from burning yard litter, tossed cigarettes, lightning, downed power lines and even arson. Here in Michigan we average some 12,000 of these a year. The initial fire call goes to the front line heroes, the local township, city and village fire departments that protect literally every inch of the country. They dash to the scene in a 4-wheel drive truck of some sort carrying a water tank usually holding 100-150 gallons of water. They hope to quickly douse the flames before the fire gets out of hand, which they handily do 99 percent of the time.
Once in a while, though, the fire proves more than their modest off road equipment can handle. This second level of fire demands a different approach. It's too large or remote to douse with water so the fire is contained by digging a fire line all the way around it, removing from this line everything that could possibly burn. The fire burns up to the line, finds no fuel and dies out. Seldom do you see fire fighters wielding shovels and axes to dig the line like you see on TV. That's more a thing of inaccessible mountains. In most cases fire lines are cut with heavy equipment such as bulldozers and graders brought in by state forestry department fire agencies or, if on Federal land, the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management. Often the local departments assist in ensuring the line is clean and that no fire slops over.
The third level of wildfire is the big Kahuna, those so large and intense they make the national news. These usually occur in the Western mountains and Alaska where fire conditions are often extreme and the terrain inaccessible. The Federal government has established an immense fire fighting network to deal with these fires, which often rage over thousands of acres. Thousands of people are employed, some government employees, many others private contractors. Squads of specially trained fire fighters from ground grunts to smoke jumpers and hot shots stand at the ready. Airplane and helicopter pilots are employed to dump water, fire retardant and smokejumpers onto the fire from above. In just hours entire portable cities pop up on the fire scene to provide food, shelter, communication, leadership and equipment ranging from shovels to trucks, bulldozers and every other imaginable necessity to the fire fighters. Fire Behavior Analysts study the weather, fuels and terrain to keep crews informed as to exactly what the fire is doing and will do in the near future. Safety officers ensure all safety measures are in place and security officers keep order. The population of these fire camps often numbers in the thousands.
The fires in Oklahoma, Texas and adjacent states are unique in that, in effect, they're a combination of all the fire levels. It's not just a big 600,000 acre grass fire. It's hundreds of smaller ones popping up everywhere, most of which are handled by local departments. These fires are not fought catch as catch can. That has proven not only inefficient, but hazardous to fire fighters health. The deployment of people, equipment and other resources is carefully choreographed. Even though few of these southern fires class as huge by mountain standards, the fire conditions are so extreme and there are so many flaring up they're being treated more like one huge fire. The various state forestry departments have set up command centers just as on a single big fire to organize all the proceedings. Federal resources, including people and equipment, stand ready to assist. As you can see, there's a lot more to the wildfire business than meets the eye. Carpe diem.