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Fire fighting policies need to get back to basics

By Mick DeZell, Hamilton

I recently read the series on “Wildfire Fatalities In The West”, published in the Missoulian. While many good points were made I have some thoughts that were in my view not emphasized strongly enough.

First my background, I was born in Hamilton and with the exception of two years I spent in the Army have lived in the Bitterroot Valley all my life. I worked for the U.S. Forest for 38 years, all on the Bitterroot National Forest. For the first three years I was a seasonal laborer and spent many days and nights fighting wildland fires. For the next five years I was the District Fire Dispatcher on the West Fork Ranger District. Then for 14 years I was the Forest Fire Dispatcher, and for the final 16 years of my career I was the Forest Fire Management Officer in charge of Fire, Fuels and Aviation Management. I retired in January of 1992, but returned to help with fire suppression efforts in 1994, 1996, 1998, 2000, and 2003. In addition I was a Volunteer Fireman on the Hamilton Fire Department for 20 years, and later Trustee of the Rural Fire District for four years. During my Forest Service career I was assigned to wildland fires from the brushfields near San Diego, California, to the Black Spruce and Tundra on the Yukon Flats, near Ft. Yukon, AK, and numerous places in between.

Wildfires in the West – After wildfires burned millions of acres in Northern Idaho and Western Montana in 1910 our nation decided all wildland fires should be controlled. With that in mind the responsible fire agencies began building fire control organizations to accomplish the task. Utilizing labor available from work programs like the CCC, many miles of roads and trails were built and many fire detection lookouts constructed. By the mid 1930’s they had a basic fire organization in place, although they were stretched very thin in many areas.

In 1935 the U.S. Forest Service adopted a fire policy they called the 10 AM policy. Under that policy all fires detected were to be attacked with enough forces to have them under control by 10 AM the following morning.

The thinking was that, if the fires were not under control by 10 AM they would spread in the afternoon and evening. The 10 AM policy remained in effect and guided Forest Service suppression efforts for almost 40 years.

After over 50 years of quite effective wildland fire suppression we entered the twenty-first century with a massive fuel buildup, especially at the lower elevations where the natural fire occurence is more frequent.

In many of our western forests the climate is too dry for rot and decay to reduce fuel buildup, and fire is the natural element of change.

Following are my thoughts and opinions about the wildland fire tragedies that occurred in Yarnell, Arizona, and South Canyon Fire in Colorado. These thoughts and opinions also include the information and empasis contained in series of articles that were published in the Missoulian. They are mine alone and although they may ruffle a few feathers and upset some folks they are offered in a positive vein, in hopes that they may in some small way prevent future wildland fire fighter tragedies.

One thing that needs to be heavily stressed in future wildland fire suppression efforts is the need to get back to basics. Establish an anchor point, and flank the fire as close as possible from there, up slope wherever that is an option. The Ten Standard Fire Fighting Orders and the 18 situations that “Shout Watchout” should once again be emphasized in all wildland fire training.

If threatened by wildland fire, usually the safest escape area is into the Black. As the old ranger told us at my first fire suppression training session, you will get smoky, dirty and hot, but you will be around for a shower and the next fire. There are very few other, truly “safe areas” in forested mountains.

Tools of the trade:

Fire Shelters – I am one of those that feel shelters have been over sold. The first video I saw praising the fire shelters was made on the Long Tom Fire on the Salmon National Forest. That fire made a very strong run and a crew deployed their shelters. On the video, crew members praised the shelters for saving their lives. I was flying that fire in a helicopter when the fire made its run and observed the area where the crew deployed their shelters. It was in an area that had been cleared of fuel by a dozer. Had they not had that large fuel-free area to deploy their shelters in, I believe the result would have been very different. With the increased fire intensity resulting from the massive fuel buildup, I believe the effectiveness of fire shelters has been further reduced.

Air Tankers – Air tankers can be quite effective, however, they need to be matched to the terrain. Large tankers are more effective in areas where they can fly low enough to make their drop. In rugged mountains where they cannot get low enough to effectively hit the target, the smaller single engine tankers or SEATS work better.

Helicopter Water Drops – Helicopter Water Drops can be quite helpful if there are ground forces there to work on the fire before the water effects wear off. If there are no ground forces in the area the water drops are far less valuable, and the high cost of the delivery should be considered.

Other items to consider: In event of future multiple wildland fire fatalities responsibility needs to be established. In one of the articles much was made about the failure to pass on a critical weather forecast, but nothing was mentioned about the crews building line downhill without an anchor point below. From what I read in the book by John Maclean about the South Canyon Fire many of the Ten Standard Fire Fighting Orders were violated. If we are to be successful in preventing future multiple wildland fire fatalities, I feel there is an urgent need to establish responsibilities and insure accountability.

There is an urgent need for massive fuel treatment and removal programs throughout the western forests. While such programs would be expensive, they would be cost effective if the reduction in future fire suppression costs and fire damages were considered. With the tremendous fuel buildup there will be major fires in some of the western forests every year.

All future subdivision proposals on or near forested lands should be required to address wildland fire problems.

 

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