Putting Out Wildfires

June 14, 2013  •  3 Comments

Well, fire season has definitely started, and with that the hubby is headed to Colorado.


To be a part of a 20 person hand crew that will be utilized to fight fires.


And, I thought that since I have some experience (and photos, of course), I could share with you a bit about wildland firefighting, and how the firefighters go about putting the fires out or 'containing them'.  


Let's start with an example map.  I stole this one off of the inciweb site today...it's for the Silver Fire, which is ablaze in NM right now.

The red line is the uncontrolled fire edge.


I can look this fire up on the nifc (National Interagency Coordination Center)'s website and find that there are 12 crews, 14 engines, and 5 helicopters assigned to the fire.  Now, what are all those resources doing to actually put this fire out?

I'll attempt to cover the main tactics they are using.


Indirect Line

Take a look at the map (notice that it covers a pretty large area) and that the actual uncontrolled fire edge is really 'finger-y'...


Since the fire has so many fingers,  it appears that crews will mostly be backing off from the fire's edge, and using the tactic of 'indirect line' in order to contain the fire in a more controlled way.  The dotted lines are 'planned fire line' the solid is 'completed line', the thin line is 'hand line' and the x'ed lines are 'dozer line'.

The type of line (whether hand, dozer, or road) is going to depend on the terrain and accessibility (along with the pre-existence of roads/creeks/rivers that could also be used).

(To clarify...'Line' means that all the fuel is removed-from trees down to bare dirt)

Here's a 20 person hand crew heading to work for the day.


As far as indirect line is concerned, hand crews are sent in to either put in handline to burn off of...


Or to prep line that is already there (road/trail) or has been put in by a dozer.  The line needs to be prepped before a burn out operation so that it's as low of an escape risk as possible.  Notice in the above and below photos of 'burn out operations' that many of the lower 'ladder' fuels (branches) have been removed on the trees in hopes that the trees won't start to torch and spot fire over the line.  There is also little to no large dead trees left on the burn side.

Here is an example of using a road as line (I'm standing on the road, you just can't see it)


Sometimes burn-out operations are done during the night so that the fire behavior is as low as possible.


A lot of times, crews put line in and then have to wait in order to start their burn out operations (due to either weather, the coordination between other on going burn-out's, tactical changes, etc.)


In order to burn-out the area between your line and the actual fire, firefighters use drip torches to light the fire (this was from a prescribed burn, but it shows a drip torch in action).  (photo by Steve Schumaker)


Then, behind the lighters (there are usually about 3 lighters give or take...one on the line and two interior), there are all the holding resources.  This consists of the rest of the crewmembers, possibly additional crews, and engines.  The holders all keep an eye to the opposite side of the line, 'the green', to watch for spot fires...then try to put them out with tools if they occur.


Here I am during a holding/lighting operation (eyes to the green).  (Photo by Blake Creagan)  You can see the road we are holding appears to have been widened out with heavy equipment.


Sometimes retardant is dropped in order to slow the incoming fire down so that the burn-out has a higher chance of being successful, and is safer for the crews working in it's path.


Helicopters are also utilized to hit 'hot spots' along the coming front.


Burn-out operations have the potential to be or become tense situations based on how close the main fire is to your line, what the weather is doing, and if the burn-out is causing a lot of spots.


All in all, it's probably the most used tactic to attack these large finger-y fires.


Direct Line

Hopefully that gave you an idea of the indirect line tactic.  Depending on if the fire is backing and/or the weather is cooperating...


A crew may be able to put in line directly along the fire's edge.  This is also called 'hot line' for obvious reasons.


The sawyers go first, clearing brush, limbs, trees.  Then the rest of the crew comes through with hand tools, digging down to bare dirt to remove the fuel from the fire.  I don't really have photos of this...so just picture everyone working really hard, and it's hot.  And hopefully, after you have your line in, the fire looks something like this:


Helicopters and tankers are also very helpful during the use of this line tactic, as they can cool off hotter areas for the incoming crew(s).





Direct line can be considered less dangerous in certain circumstances, as you know exactly where the fire is because you are following the edge.


As opposed to indirect line, where the fire has more of a potential to run at you (based on where you are).

That's why crew's always post lookouts, a person that can see both the crew's location and the main fire.




Sometimes, parts of a fire's edge have just plain burned out (naturally).  In this case, crews come in and cold-trail the edge and grid out interior at least 100ft in order to feel and smell for remaining heat.  (This isn't a good photo example, but hopefully you get my drift).  When they find heat (usually in stump holes) they put it out using hand tools and dirt (and if there's a water source nearby-backpack water pumps).



After all is said and done-lines are in and secure, burn-outs are complete...the daunting task of mop-up begins.  This is similar to cold trailing and is done along the entire fire edge.


Firefighters grid out 50' then 100', on all the way to 600' sometimes.  This can go on for days.  They use their tools and dirt to smother the coals and heat until it's gone.


And if you are lucky, water may be available...you just may have to hike in (and out) 1000 ft or 2000ft of hose and drag it through who knows what...but it's worth it.


Here, you can see the main trunk line, and then my smaller hose that Y's off of it.


The water can usually be sourced back to either Engines or portable water troughs with firefighters working pumps out of it.  The water troughs are filled up with either water tenders or helicopter bucket drops depending on their location.

Sometimes helicopters are assigned to mop-up operations and you can direct them to your larger hotspots using signal mirrors:


Or bright orange reflective strips, flagging attached to your tool, and/or guided navigation through radio.


A little water can go a long way and really shorten the time it takes to put out a fire (or coals) with dirt.


At the end of the day, everyone gets together for an AAR (after action review) to discuss the what-went-well/bad etc's for the day.


And then you eat and pass out in your sleeping bag till the next morning.

This was a quick and dirty explanation, of course there's a lot more that goes into it (especially when structures are involved), but this is the basic framework for how these large wildfires are put out.


makes me want to go fight a fire....but even as fisheries biologist I put out fires all day long. ~ should I be wearing my nomex?
robin ball(non-registered)
Please add me to your blog list - thank you.
robin ball(non-registered)
WOW Terra! Thank you for you comprehensive explanation. I have a better idea of what's involved in firefighting and your photos are incredible. Last week we watched the fire in Rocky Mtn Nat'l Park from our deck while seeing photos of it on TV - quite strange. Our best thoughts and energy go out to those in Colorado Springs - how tragic. Take care, Robin
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