Where Should You Be?

Reflections on the 2015 western fire season

Todd McNeal | From the January 2016 Issue of FireRescue Magazine

The 2015 fire season in now officially over. It was a deadly year with both civilian and firefighter deaths. A staggering amount of destruction occurred to many communities across the west with more than 8.8 million acres burned and more than 1,200 homes lost. The statistics are devastating and troublesome but, sadly, not a surprise. The record-setting drought in California, which has produced the four driest consecutive years ever recorded, has taken its toll on the fuels. The cumulative impacts to live fuel moistures and vegetation mortality created the perfect recipe for explosive fire spread, and in 2015 that is exactly what occurred.

Firefighters need to discuss and develop improved incident variable recognition and processing, which in turn drives new tactics and better decision making. (Photo by Steve White.)

Firefighters need to discuss and develop improved incident variable recognition and processing, which in turn drives new tactics and better decision making. (Photo by Steve White.)

This fact, the reality of a new age of mega fires and explosive fire spread, deserves the attention and understanding of any firefighter suppressing wildland fire in the future. The fire behavior has changed-our situational awareness must change. Firefighters need to discuss and develop improved incident variable recognition and processing, which in turn drives new tactics and better decision making.

The heat output alone from these current fires is enough to consume everything not stone or steel and can move faster, spot farther, and kill quicker than any fires experienced in the history of wildland suppression. All assigned resources need to be adept at recognition of deteriorating conditions in the fire environment and implement a tactical change.

Quick and Constant Evaluation

The most basic choice is to get out of the way of the approaching fire front, move to a position of temporary safety, and then reengage once the front has passed. This tactic is simply stated as fire-front following. Tactically, it is unwise and unsafe to stay and try to take on the head fire fueled by wind and drought-stricken fuels; that is a losing equation. It is far better to seize targets of opportunity while remaining vigilant to fire conditions and then quickly change operational modes to maximize safety.

One of the most imperative responsibilities of the company officer at a wildland incident is to quickly and constantly evaluate the potential of the fire. This critical function is the foundation on which crew safety and tactical success are built. Although this appears to be a relatively simple concept, the complex interaction of wildland fire behavior variables, yielding incident-specific fire behavior, cannot be underestimated.

The company officer, or any crew member for that matter, must remember to start with the basic analysis of fuels, weather, and topography. These “ingredients” that influence each other and are directly linked can interact in a multitude of combinations, yielding both favorable and unfavorable fire behavior. It is the resultant fire behavior, produced by the ingredients, that determines our actions, our effectiveness, and ultimately our safety. The goal of this frequent analysis is to keep an accurate awareness of the fire’s potential to produce behavior that could negatively impact personnel safety.

Changing Recipe

Simply put, the ingredients on any given day, in any given location, combine in a recipe to produce a product. The product of this unique time and location-specific recipe is the observed fire behavior. Change any one of the ingredient’s parameters, and the fire behavior will change. Instinctively, all firefighters know this interrelationship of ingredients, but applying these instincts in a timely manner is the key to safe operations. The interaction of the recipe ingredients changes in complexity over time and space. The ability to process all of the variables improves with experience and training but is unfortunately subject to distraction, fatigue, complacency, and a multitude of other factors that erode our effectiveness in this important task.

Available to firefighters at a wildland incident are numerous decision tools, including but not limited to fire behavior processors, nomograms, charts, and computer software. However, none of these are intended to override the irreplaceable tool of the firefighter’s brain. Instead, these tools serve to help ratify, or clarify, what intuitively firefighters should be thinking while operating at a fire of any size or complexity. There is no doubt that fire behavior is a dynamic force that moves, breathes, accelerates, slows, propagates, and in some cases defies logical thought. This fact makes accurate assessment illusive, and in some cases even the most seasoned veteran personnel underestimate potential. However, this reality should just strengthen the resolve of all personnel to consistently, frequently, and accurately evaluate the fire’s potential.

Personnel Safety

To assist with this decision process, I would propose a simple question to be asked by all personnel engaged in fire suppression at any location on the incident: “Where do I want to be, and where do I not want to be when this fire makes its move?” This simple question is the most direct application of the complex analysis of fire behavior related to the most important strategic goal at any incident: personnel safety. Although recipes produced by the environment can in some cases present significant challenge to fire suppression operations, answering the question can hopefully position personnel in a safe location when fire behavior intensifies.

If we are disciplined in our asking of that question and evaluating the potential of the recipe presented on any given day, then personnel safety is improved. This intellectual assessment does not have to develop into a prolonged analysis. In fact, I would encourage personnel to refrain from “paralysis by analysis” during suppression because we have to make decisions and act. Instead, objectively look at the fire behavior inputs (temperature, slope, aspect, fuels, etc.), apply that to the topography, and answer the question regarding whether you are in a safe location.

Incident Awareness

This is a proactive thought process that, if completed accurately, should assist personnel with the critical decision of locating a safe area to operate. Furthermore, the answer to the question of where to be or not to be could quite possibly place personnel in the desirable position of pleasantly surprised, as opposed to tragically surprised, during fire behavior changes. Call it proactive, active risk benefit analysis, worst-case scenario planning, or all of the above; the bottom line is that by evaluating the potential presented by the fire environment on every shift, day or night, firefighters are better situated to answer the question of where they want to be and where they don’t want to be.

Therefore, the next time you find yourself at a wildland fire incident, get your hands on an accurate topography map; locate a solid weather forecast; analyze the state of the fuels; and then evaluate the fire’s potential, its likely path, and make certain you aren’t positioned to be overrun.

ToddMcNealBioPhotoTodd McNeal is a 23-year veteran of the fire service and chief of Twain Harte Fire in Tuolumne County, California. He has a diverse background in wildland and structural fire management and suppression and has been serving as a division/group supervisor on a Federal Type II Incident Management Team for 10 years. McNeal has been an instructor in the fire service for 15 years, has numerous ICS qualifications in wildland operations, is a registered instructor with California State Fire Training and a California fire officer, and has a bachelor’s degree in natural resource management.