Enough is Enough!!!

Enough is Enough!

By Sonny Stiger: TriCounty FireSafe Working Group, (retired) Type 1 Incident Commander, Fire Behavior Specialist. Click here for a downloadable document

“How many lives have to be lost, both firefighter and civilian, before we refuse to take an assignment in the Wildland/Urban Interface (WUI) unless we can treat homes as just another pine tree?” ( E.M. “Sonny” Stiger, 2012.)

Those of us who study fire, fuels, and weather have known that the loss of firefighters by entrapment or burn-over is a real possibility when we require our firefighters to protect homes with their lives.

The increased risk to the loss of lives and property mirrors the expansion of the wildland urban interface. Regardless of this expansion and the growing number of personal property and values at risk in the wildland urban interface, public and firefighter safety must be management’s first concern.  We, the firefighters, must never let our guard down and never become complacent. There are ways to eliminate entrapment or burn-over tragedies for firefighters and civilians. But, it will take a conscious change in the way we deal with wildland fires in the WUI.

First is to expand the term “Defensible Space” to Survivable Space.

Defensible Space by definition requires the active efforts of a fire truck to defend a home.  Defensible space allows the firefighters to have a safe space to defend a home.  However, there are not enough fire trucks in an area to deploy one truck to defend every home in a major wildland fire.  In the capitol city of Helena, with a population of over 30,000 residents and 13,000 homes (over 700 with shake shingle roofs), our local City Fire Chief was asked how he would respond to a WUI fire in Helena’s South Hills.  His response was, “On a good day I have 6 firemen on duty.  Which one of the 400 homes do you want me to protect?”

Broadening the definition of Defensible Space to Survivable Space to include the qualities of one’s home recognizes that a person’s home is a fuel too and must be seen as such. Just as homeowners mow their lawns and, remove excess debris, they should box in their eaves, replace shake shingle roofs, and remove any flammable material away from the home.

In other words, homeowners have a duty to do everything it takes to prepare the home and property to survive a wildland fire without additional protection from fire suppression forces.  There are numerous pamphlets available that explain in detail how to do that.  When a fire comes-and as fire is nature’s way in our range and forest ecosystems, it surely will- the home will have a much better chance of surviving along with any remaining residents and on-site firefighters that, for what ever reason, find themselves in the flames.

Second, Plan for Evacuation.

Prepared home owners living in the WUI will have their valuables already packed for evacuation, especially during times of high and extreme fire danger.  When a fire is spotted they can load their valuables and quickly leave the danger area.  Situational awareness is invaluable to all residents in the wildland/urban interface.  Evacuate your home early when you become aware of a fast spreading wildland fire in the vicinity.  All too often, civilian deaths occur because residents evacuate too late.  In areas across Montana, evacuation routes are often narrow and fuel laden causing dense smoke as well as fire that can totally block visibility.  If at all possible, please evacuate your home early while visibility is still good.

Third, Fight Fires After the Fire Front Passes.

Page 10 of the 2010 Incident Response Pocket Guide, a publication of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group,  describes the steps to be taken in Wildland/Urban Interface firefighting.  In part these steps include the following:

“Do not commit to stay and protect a structure unless a safety zone for firefighters and equipment has been identified at the structure during size-up and triage.

Move to the nearest safety zone, let the fire front pass, and return as soon as conditions allow, and:

Base all actions on current and expected fire behavior – do this first!

It is imperative that firefighters consider the worst case and build contingency actions into their plan to compensate for the unexpected”.

Fires in the WUI are more safely fought after the fire front has passed over a home or community.  Many homes are lost after the fire front passes due to small insignificant fires next to flammable materials that ignite the home long after the fire front has passed.  It is at this time that fire crews have the best chance to safely enter the burned area to clean up those small, insignificant fires and save homes.  Small fire departments can call on mutual aid for assistance.

  • The following is taken from the Montana Fire Services’ Mutual Aid, Command, and Field Operations Guide Risk Management Plan.
  • We will begin our response on the assumption that we can protect lives and property. We will risk our lives, if necessary, to protect salvageable lives.
  • We will risk our lives a little and in a calculated manner to protect salvageable property.  We will NOT risk our lives at all to protect lives and property that are already lost.

“The Incident Commander shall weigh the risk to firefighters against the possible results of their actions.  There are situations, including but not limited to situations where violent reactions endanger operations or rescue incidents where there is no possibility of victim survival, where the risk to firefighters is unacceptable and a decision to take “No Offensive Action” shall be permitted to be the appropriate decision.  Firefighter safety and survival shall be the major consideration in all operations”

However, these guidelines are not always followed.

Our fire crews should not be overrun by fire, trying to protect homes if they are given the liberty to locate line in safe areas based on current and expected fire behavior, without regard for the location of houses.  If the houses have Survivable Space they will have a much better chance of surviving.  If not, they will probably burn, but our fire crews will be able to concentrate their efforts on getting the fire out in the safest manner.

Houses must be treated as just another pine tree!!



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