WILDFIRE. IT CAN HAPPEN AT ANY TIME OF THE DAY OR NIGHT. An early-morning lightning strike on a remote ridge deep in an old growth forest. A stray spark in the tinder-dry afternoon in an isolated canyon. A minor late-night traffic accident on the outskirts of a major city. While the cause, location and character of every wildfire varies, the imperative to manage and control the potentially catastrophic consequences is always the same.
The men and women who fight wildfires are a special breed. Required to respond at a moment’s notice to extremely dangerous and volatile situations, these individuals rely on teamwork, training and a highly efficient support network to ensure that they achieve their mission-critical objectives – not the least of which is to survive to fight another day.
Where there’s smoke…
It usually starts with smoke. A hiker sees a plume rising above the forest canopy. A ranger spots the telltale signs from a lookout tower. A homeowner notices the signature smell of smoke in the air. From that moment on, every second is critical. Experienced fire management professionals swing into action, assessing the scope and accessibility of the fire; current and projected weather conditions; the number and availability of fire units in the area; and the range of support services they’ll need to stage an effective firefighting campaign.
The stakes are enormous. Decisions about where to deploy often-limited resources have to be made in rapidly changing and often escalating conditions. No matter what the scenario, the first priority for every fire team is the preservation of human life. As settlements increasingly encroach on wilderness areas, many more lives are threatened by wildfire. Add to that the fact that most modern fires are the result of human activity rather than natural events, and you have a highly combustible combination.
A burning issue
Deploying firefighters to the front lines of a fire is an enormous undertaking – and a solemn responsibility. The annals of the fire service are filled with tragedies that resulted from a sudden change in the direction of the wind, an unexpected firestorm, a tactical oversight or a disastrous underestimation of the speed, force and destructive power of a wildfire. Putting firefighters in harm’s way is never a decision taken lightly.
Over the years, both conditions on the ground and approaches to fighting wildfires have changed dramatically. A controversial policy of absolute fire suppression over much of the 20th century interfered with natural cycles of burning and regeneration, leading to dangerously high volumes of fuel across huge swaths of wilderness. In direct consequence, fires today are deliberately left to burn whenever feasible, and planned burns are a regular part of forest service fire management.
The front lines
Those fires that must be fought are tackled aggressively with offensive and defensive strategies honed by hard-earned experience. Incident teams employ military style discipline, a clear chain of command, tactical reconnaissance, advanced technologies, and tried-and-true techniques to battle large wildfires on multiple fronts.
Unlike structure fires, where water and other fire retardants are the first line of defense, wilderness crews fight fire with fire. They cut trenches and light backfires in the path of an advancing blaze to deprive the flames of fuel, oxygen and a clear path forward. The water and chemicals dropped by air tankers and helicopters usually just buy the teams on the ground desperately needed time to do their perilous, backbreaking work – and then retreat to safer ground.
The fire camp
Fire crews often work 16-hour shifts in blinding smoke, blazing heat, heavy gear and treacherous terrain. On a good day, they return to camp filthy, exhausted and depleted. On a bad day, they’re dealing with injuries, heat prostration, burns, snake bites, poison oak, dehydration – the list goes on and on. Which is why it’s so critical that their support team is fully operational and prepared for every contingency.
Fire camp is all about ensuring the wellbeing of hundreds and sometimes thousands of firefighting personnel. Medical facilities, showers, toilets, laundry services, staging areas, sleep areas, kitchens, communication infrastructure – all of the amenities of a small city have to be mobilized in a matter of hours – and sometimes maintained for weeks on end. From experienced mobile chefs tasked with whipping up 6,500 calories/person/day, to the operators of 24-hour shower units in specially adapted semi trailers, every member of a fire support team plays a crucial role in the successful execution of a wildfire campaign.
Working together, firefighters and fire camp personnel face down nature’s fury. The pace is relentless, and the challenges are legion, but the rewards of their heroic collaboration are never more obvious than when the smoke finally clears.
At Legistics, we have the experience and technology to provide the support you need to survive and thrive under even the most challenging conditions. To find out more about our responsive, specialized support services, visit our home page.