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Fire drill proves to be good practice for next generation of wildland firefighters

Outdoor workshop breaks down issues around fuels, topography and weather
Scott Nielsen, wildland coordinator with Durango Fire Protection District, talks with Fort Lewis College students last week about fire mitigation work that had been done on 17 acres of county-owned land near Edgemont Highlands, an area that is covered with oak brush and ponderosa. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

The La Plata County Incident Management Team accomplished three tasks at once last week when it hosted students from Fort Lewis College at a fire drill in Edgemont Highlands subdivision.

The afternoon fire drill and workshop included training for the county Incident Management Team, real fire mitigation actions in the Edgemont area and a learning experience for 23 students of professor Deanne Grant’s resilience and society course.

The workshop was formatted according to the National Incident Management System as if it were an actual wildfire. Shawna Legarza, the county’s emergency management director, served as incident commander for the workshop.

Students were given incident action plans that communicated the afternoon’s itinerary. The plans were drafted by IMT Planning Section Chief Emily Spencer and displayed emergency response team assignments, including team leaders and objectives; safety and medical information; and a map of the surrounding location, a wooded area with nearby residences to the north and west and Florida Road (County Road 240) to the south.

The workshop was divided into three major stations where students learned about the wildland-urban interface – environments where urban development is encroaching into wildlands; fuels reduction and mitigation; and a pile burn with a live fire being fed with collected leaves and tree branches.

Grade schoolers are taught the basics of what it takes to start a fire: fuel, heat and oxygen. Emergency Management Coordinator Rob Farino told Fort Lewis College students last week at a fire drill in Edgemont Highlands subdivision that the three most vital factors when dealing with wildland fires are fuel, topography and weather. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Alison Layman, OEM planner, was the mitigation instructor, and Scott Nielsen, wildland coordinator for Durango Fire Protection District, served as the prescribed burn instructor. Emergency Management Coordinator Rob Farino led the wildland-urban interface station, which was near local residences at the west edge of the woods.

He discussed the concept of the “wildland fire triangle,” which he said describes the different factors that combine to form various kinds of wildland fire scenarios.

The triangle consists of fuel, topography and weather.

Fuels

“The fuel is the stuff that we’re standing in and are talking about,” Farino said. “Fuels that are down, fuels that are in the air.”

Fuels are the factor that an incident management team can do the most with in advance, whether through mitigation work or in response to an active emergency, he said.

“When you have a wildland fire, the flame height is typically 1½ times the height of fuel,” he said. “If you have brush this high, flame lengths can be one and a half, almost twice that high.”

Farino said to imagine a forest fire where the trees are crowning.

“Now, you have flame heights 150, 200 feet,” he said. “That’s significantly more heat and extreme fire behavior.”

For wildland-urban interface, the type of fuel around homes or buildings dictates the tactics the incident management team will use to respond to the fire.

Topography

Topography is a factor that cities and counties can manage with some foresight.

Farino said building codes and regulations help control where structures are developed, and can prevent structures from being built in areas that are especially hard to access or where wildfires are prone to spreading fast.

Incident management teams also take topographical terrain into account in their incident action plans and mission briefings.

Weather

But the third factor in the wildland fire triangle, Farino said, is the most unpredictable and also completely uncontrollable: the weather.

“Wind is our enemy,” he said. “You see complete towns get wiped off the map. You see Santa Ana winds. ... You see all these wind-driven events; that’s when you see resources pulling back.”

A fire driven by wind won’t stop until the wind does, he said. He compared the scenario to the fire on a blow torch.

“We just don’t stand a chance,” he said. “So, the weather, that’s one thing we can’t really control, either. It’s completely beyond our control.”

Alison Layman, emergency management planner for La Plata County, led the mitigation station at a fire drill last week at Edgemont Highlands northeast of Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Farino also described several main tactics used to attack wildfires, such as the “bump and run” strategy and the “fire front following” strategy.

He said homes that appear to be savable amid an emergency are called “winners” and homes without hope of being saved because of conditions are called “losers.”

“I don’t think that’s politically correct,” he said. “But for us, that’s a quick determination of, if we come up here, we can save this house. Or, on the other hand, no way in hell, we don’t feel safe in here.”

He said it requires a critical eye to identify how threatening a wildland fire could be to a home and what it would take to protect that home.

The “bump and run” strategy entails taking quick actions to protect a home before a fire can reach it, and then moving on to the next residence to do the same, staying ahead of the fire the whole time.

A “stand and fight” strategy is pretty straightforward.

If an incident management team is in a situation where it has good clearance and the home is safe and defensible, Farino said, “We’re going to auger in, we’re going to put the pump in gear, we’re going to pull hose between the homes where we have no longer than 100 feet of hose out. And we’re going to wait for the fire to get to us and then we’re going to put it out.”

“Fire front following” is a strategy deployed when the fire is too hot, there’s too much fuel and the weather is too windy. Incident responders will follow behind the fire on its heels, Farino said, and when the opportunity presents itself they rush the fire and put it out.

“A lot of times homes burn down from just little embers, pine needles,” he said. “They start small when we can still go in and stomp it out, use water, whatever.”

Farino said his background is in structural firefighting but he spent a lot of time fighting wildland fires in California. He said one task he enjoys as a field observer is mapping a fire’s spread after it has been put out.

“So I would walk the fire line after the fire passed through and crews had cut a line around it or a wet line, and that’s how we would maintain accurate maps that go in the following days,” he said.

He said in the world of structure firefighting, when he was called to a wildland fire, he would set out in a strike team that consisted of five fire engines or five like vehicles and the strike leader’s vehicle, usually an SUV. The redundancy in having the same vehicles is so that everyone has similar abilities fit for the specific situation, he said.

“When we’re in a strike team that’s kind of like a module or a manageable unit,” he said.

One division may have something like 10 strike teams, Farino said.

Students also learned about the different types of fuels that can feed wildland fires in addition to mitigation and wildland upkeep practices to prevent fires in the first place.

The students previously attended an Office of Emergency Management workshop on Oct. 19 in Bodo Park, where they studied the basics of the incident command systems.

cburney@durangoherald.com



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