By Cindy Devone-Pacheco
Published Thursday, August 2, 2012
With fires raging in Colorado and other states this season, much attention has been given to the issue of wildlan/urban interface (WUI) fires. And rightfully so, as there is no longer any speculation about whether WUI fires are a “Western states” issue; large, destructive WUI fires occur anywhere that homes or developments encroach upon open areas, grasslands, forested areas, etc. Their devastating effects have been seen and felt from one end of the country to the other.
To minimize the devastation, firefighters have made valiant efforts to save people’s homes over the years, but in order to successfully perform structure protection, firefighters must have a strong grasp of basic tactics and strategies. Yesterday at Fire-Rescue International, Jim Linardos of Lake Travis (Texas) Fire Rescue presented a speed session, “Structure Protection Tactics in the WUI” in which he touched on some of the basic guidelines included in the Incident Response Pocket Guide (or IRPG, the guidebook for wildland firefighters), as well as some of the tactics his department and the state of Texas have deployed over the past year.
The discussion was brief, but to the point, reviewing some key concepts and elements involved in structure protection:
- Safe and effective protection means getting the right resources to the right place at the right time: If that doesn’t happen, firefighters’ performance could be criticized. “We can go from heroes to zeroes real quick,” Lindardos pointed out. “People like the service they receive, but then the next day, they start asking questions.”
- You need pre-incident size-up as well as a size-up: Pre-incident size up should include checking the fuel load, topography, etc., while the size-up at the scene should always include locating/establishing look-outs, communications, escape routes, safety zones (LCES). Safety zones should always take into account flame length.
- Check your resources: How many do you need? Think about them in 30-minute intervals to make sure you’re always evaluating the situation and responding to changing conditions.
- Change the language: Avoid terms like “loser house.” Instead, use terms like “rescue drive-by.”
- Spot fires and firebrands: Firebrands can ignite new fires as far as a mile away or more. If a spot fire occurs, you must attack quickly, and make sure it’s completely out before moving on.
One major point Linardos stressed during his presentation: the need for retreating and returning, and firefighter rehab. “There were times when we knew the homes were going to go,” he says of one incident, “but I had to rehab my guys.
“Firefighters will work until when?” he asked the class. “Until they die. They’ll sit on the lawn and keep vomiting, then try to get more Gatorade in themselves to go back inside.”
The bottom line: If your safety is compromised, get out.
Four important, yet not always obvious, resources available to structural departments that Linardos stressed were dozers, hand crews, trucks and aircraft. “We don’t use [dozers] that well, but they’re OK to use,” he says. But he cautions that prior to using a dozer, firefighters must have a set plan in place and proper training. “[Dozers] make a horrible sound when they take out the yard, playscapes, etc., and when they drop, it’s horrible,” he warns.
Hand crews are another valuable resource that structural departments might not initially think about using. “We were killing our firefighters in Texas,” Linardos says of using structural firefighters on large WUI fires. “Hand crews [are properly dressed for wildland fires], they bust their butts and they’re good at ember finding.”
Using trucks in the WUI helps knock down wooden fences, which Linardos notes, “Texas has a lot of.” They can also take out wooden decks and rain gutters to help prevent embers from igniting another fire. Engine crews can then come and do the attic work, checking for places and materials that might hide embers once the main fire blows through.
Finally, Linardos touted the use of aircraft on WUI fires, but cautioned that due to drought conditions facing much of the country, it may not always be easy to find a dip site. “Drought is affecting [our use of the planes],” he says. But fortunately for his local agency, their EMS helo is capable of making water drops—a unique approach to aerial firefighting, but one that could catch on as the WUI continues to grow.
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