Matt McClellan & Kate Spirgen | August, 2012
The heroes, the environmental impact, and the home considerations that come with wildfires.
Wildfires can be devastating, regenerating, fear-inducing, and awe-inspiring. They reveal heroic feats as well as scarred hillsides. Here, we examine the many faces of wildfires, including the personal stories of those who face the flames to protect us, the Earth’s response to the blazes – both good, and bad – and how you can safeguard your home and garden to the best of your ability if you’re in the path of a fire.
In the line of fire
require unconventional firefighting methods
When 100-foot-high flames are racing through the treetops, destroying acres of forests and families are evacuated from their homes, what can be done? When smoke billows in the air and it’s hard to breathe, who would be able to help?
When traditional firefighting methods just aren’t enough, this is who you call.
Wildfires like the ones that have ripped through the West require firefighters with specialized skills, like aerial firefighters and handcrews.
Handcrews are tasked with creating “firelines” – strips of land cleared of flammable materials and dug down to mineral soil. These lines are generally constructed around wildfires to control them. The most elite of these wildfire crews are called “Hot Shots.” These forest commandos are deployed to the front lines of the most dangerous, difficult-to-contain fires.
“We hike into the areas where normal means of firefighting can’t take place,” says Jesse Hendricks, superintendent of the Vandenberg Hot Shots, a 21-person crew. “The steeper, the farther out – that’s where we go.”
Jesse’s crew is the only Department of Defense Hot Shots crew. They’re based out of Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. When wildfires began to rage out of control in Colorado Springs, threatening residential areas, the Hot Shots were called in.
The Hot Shots’ typical mission objective is to remove the fuel sources from the fire’s perimeter to stop its progression. They use chainsaws and hand tools like McLeods and Pulaskis to clear trees, shrubs, and brush from the fire’s path.
“We work right on the black’s edge, removing fuels to stop the fire’s spread,” Hendricks says. “The black – the actual burned area – that’s what we call our safety zone.”
It’s grueling, dangerous work. When they head out from the incident command post to a fire, they carry 30-45 pound packs and wear fire-protective clothing. The sawyers – crew members who carry chainsaws – are hauling an extra 25 pounds on their shoulders. It’s no surprise that the Hot Shots’ physical fitness standards are legendary. Jesse says work-specific training is an absolute necessity.
“We train by hiking because that’s how we work, and we run to build up our stamina,” he says. “And when we hike, we hike like we work: packs on, full PPE (personal protective equipment – clothing). If you’re supposed to be carrying a chainsaw, it’s on your shoulder. We hike our toughest hills and try to get into the heat, to train like we would on a fire. Then we practice cutting a line, just as we would on a fire. We line up in tool order: chainsaws out ahead moving the brush, then hand tools behind them scraping the ground fuels down to bare dirt.”
In the field, the Hot Shots use radio communications to coordinate with water support from the ground and aerial firefighters who drop water or flame retardant from their planes or helicopters.
Tools of the Trade
Essential equipment that the Hot Shots take to the fire
McLeod: The McLeod, with its large hoe-like blade on one side and tined blade on the other, is a forest fire tool common in America's western mountain ranges. It was originally intended for raking fire lines with the teeth and for cutting branches and sod with the sharpened hoe edge.
The McLeod is useful for removing slough and berm from a trail and tamping or compacting tread. It can also be used to shape a trail's backslope. Because of its shape, the McLeod is an awkward tool to transport and store. Firefighters carry it with the tines pointing toward the ground, ideally with a sheath over the cutting edge.
Pulaski: Developed to grub and chop duff during forest fires, the Pulaski combines an axe bit with an adz-shaped grub hoe on a 36-inch wood or fiberglass handle. It is preferred by many trail crews for loosening dirt, cutting through roots, or grubbing brush because it is widely available and easier to carry than single-purpose tools. Unlike grub hoes or mattocks, the Pulaski is a sharp-edged tool, and should not be used in rocky soil. With the bit and adz keenly honed, a Pulaski is an excellent woodworking tool for shaping the notches and joints of turnpikes, bridges, and other timber projects.
Tool descriptions by Jim Schmid, AmericanTrails.org
Delivering the goods
Lt. Col. Luke Thompson, chief of aerial firefighting with 302nd Airlift Wing, helped coordinate the response to the Waldo Canyon Fire. A week later, he was in the air again on a crew fighting wildfires in Wyoming. Since then, aircrews have provided aerial support to fires in South Dakota, Idaho, Oregon and Nevada.
“As you’re closing in on a big fire, you see the smoke and it definitely hits home,” Lt. Col. Thompson says. “Especially one like the Waldo Canyon fire, where the fire is close to a town and there is a lot at stake. So if you see that big smoke plume and you know there is a lot of private property down there, it gets intense.”
Specially formulated fire retardant is one of the most important tools in an aerial firefighter’s arsenal. It is composed of several phosphate and sulfate salts that prevent combustion and act as a fertilizer to help with plant regrowth. Retardant is often deployed by aircraft equipped with Modular Airborne Fire Fighting Systems, or MAFFS. This self-contained aerial firefighting system can discharge 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in less than five seconds, covering an area one-quarter of a mile long by 100 feet wide. Four wings fly C-130 Hercules aircraft equipped with MAFFS: the 153rd Airlift Wing, the Wyoming Air National Guard; 146th Airlift Wing, California Air National Guard; 145th Airlift Wing, North Carolina Air National Guard; and the 302nd Airlift Wing, U.S. Air Force Reserve Command.
Since the first request for assistance on June 24, MAFFS-equipped aircraft have made a total of 315 drops discharging 769,952 gallons of retardant.
Lt. Col. Thompson says that once a request comes in, an aerial firefighter’s mind starts racing.
“Once you get the launch order, you’re in ‘go mode,’” he says. “You think about all the possibilities: Where the fire is, what the terrain is like, what you have to do to get there, how long it will take to get there, how much fuel you’ll need to get there, drop and get back. Your brain goes into overdrive thinking about all the factors.”
U.S. Army Sgt. Sheldon Snodgrass, a flight instructor with Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 135th Aviation Regiment, Colorado Army National Guard, looks out the door of a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter at the High Park wildfire in Larimer County, Colo., while on a water drop mission June 15. Photo by Sgt. Ryan Kohlman
The aerial firefighter’s flight path depends on the fire conditions. The C-130 crew communicates with the incident commander on the ground and the crew of a smaller aircraft that flies in ahead of the C-130, assesses the situation and describes the target. Then, they plan the drop.
“If it’s a real hot, large fire in tall timber that is just ripping through the full height of the trees, putting out a couple hundred foot flame lengths, then you don’t want to get too close,” Lt. Col. Thompson says. “(That type of fire) is sucking so much air, it will cause wind shear, which creates dangerous conditions for flying.”
Ideally, the pilot is able to fly close enough that one wing is directly over the edge of the blaze.
“You tuck up as close to the fire as you can,” Lt. Col. Thompson says. “Every wingspan closer to the fire may save another row of houses, but you can only get so close. Then you drop and hope it held and stopped the fire, because there are houses on the left in the fire and houses on the right that aren’t burned yet. It’s tough to see.”
Lt. Col. Thompson has the unique viewpoint of being able to compare aerial firefighting to handcrew work, as he has experience with both.
“Ground firefighting is grueling work,” he says. “To shovel a line in the brush, climbing hills and breathing smoke – you can’t imagine how hard that work is for those guys that are out there every day doing that. Aerial firefighting is also a challenge. It’s tough maneuvering a large plane and hitting exactly where they want you to hit, but it makes it very rewarding when you do.”
The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, reports more than 4 million acres have gone up in flames this year. As of July 26, there were 22 uncontained large fires raging across the U.S. The specialized firefighters will be busy for a while.
Wildfires and ecology
The lasting impact of flames in the forest
Wildfires have been sweeping the western U.S. this summer, scorching the earth, destroying homes and at times, taking lives. But what happens to the forest ecology after the helicopters and firefighters have put out the flames and gone home? The naturally occurring phenomenon can help clear underbrush, increase sunlight, return nutrients to the soil and decrease competition among hardwood trees. But fires can also lead to increased erosion, large smog clouds and invasion by non-native species.
Most fires in the U.S. are located in the West and Southwest, where wildfires would start on their own. But the large, catastrophic fires that have been burning in Colorado, Utah, California and Arizona this year are putting lives in danger and damaging the forest ecosystem.
Last year, there were 74,126 fires in the U.S. that burned 8,711,367 acres of land, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. This year’s drought conditions have led to many fires already this summer, as seen on the USDA Forest Service Active Fire Mapping Program.
“Not all wildfires are bad,” says Rich Schwab, national coordinator of the National Park Service Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER). “Fire, especially in western ecologies, is a natural part of the ecosystem. It’s one of the change agents that have been around for millennia. They’re not always going to be detrimental.”
Early American firefighters sought to eliminate flames as soon as they appeared for fear they would spread to nearby homes and communities. But fire suppression can lead to its own problems, including larger, more destructive fires. Many experts are saying that smaller, prescribed fires could actually reduce the number of catastrophic events.
Smoke and flames from the Waldo Canyon fire can be seen from nearby Coronado High School in western Colorado Springs, Colo. U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Rusty Ridley
Many forest ecosystems in the West rely on occasional flames to maintain the natural balance. Pioneer plants, like Aspens, need the occasional forest fire to sprout new seedlings. Aspens require lots of sunshine and their root systems remain intact after a wildfire, sending up new shoots once the covering canopy has been destroyed.
“In Colorado, the Aspen stands aren’t as large as they have been because we’ve been putting out fires,” Rich says. “The other species in those landscapes, like the conifers, are taking over. You need a little bit of fire to knock back the conifers and allow the Aspens to regenerate.”
At Yosemite National Park in California, giant sequoia trees and red pines have felt the effects of fire prevention. Both trees are designed to thrive after small ground fires, but larger fires can scorch all the way to the tops of the trees, damaging and possibly killing them. The National Park Service now uses controlled burns to replicate the natural wildfires necessary for the ecosystem.
But there is the potential for serious disasters following a large forest fire, like mudslides, flash floods and pollution in local water sources. BAER team members work to mitigate dangerous circumstances, building prevention walls and taking other protective measures, but they try to let nature take its course.
“The degree of change is what we’re concerned about,” Rich says. “Most ecosystems have adapted to fires, but those big, catastrophic fires are the ones we’re worried about.”
The Waldo Canyon fire that ripped through Colorado in June was one of the big ones. The fire burned so hot that about 5 square miles of the affected area was left completely bare. No plants, or even root systems, were left after the blaze was extinguished. BAER made recommendations for erosion control and re-growth in that situation, including dropping mulch from helicopters, temporarily closing affected areas and stabilizing paths, roads and trails.
Those catastrophic fires are becoming more and more common. “There are fires that are hotter today than they would have been years ago,” Rich says. “Those fires in Colorado this year have been horrific. That’s not the kind of fire we want and they’ve been very damaging.”
The sheer size and heat of fires like Waldo Canyon bring with them concerns about increased silt in the water supply, harmful smog and foreign plant invasion. In the Great Basin region, for example, cheatgrass has been taking over after wildfires. The weed, native to Central Asia, is famous for out-competing native species for water, leaving the landscape ripe for a wildfire. The weed’s seeds will survive a fire, and germinate when the fall rains come.
The invasive species has been responsible for sparking thousands of acres of wildfires, expanding its habitat with each fire. “The reason it’s such a problem is it changes the fire regime. It actually carries the fire,” Rich adds. “It’s a pioneer species that doesn’t have natural predators like other native plants so it spreads quickly.”
As cheatgrass extends its reach, more and more fires are likely to break out. According to the USDA Agricultural Research Service, ecosystems once dominated by sagebrush would experience a wildfire every 60 to 110 years. Once cheatgrass becomes dominant, fires could be fewer than five years apart.
As for the fauna of the forest ecosystem, fires have much less of an impact. Large mammals’ instincts warn them of an impending fire, and smaller burrowing animals get far enough underground that the fire passes right over them. Fish simply head upstream and birds head for greener pastures. “It’s pretty rare for a firefighter to find a large dead animal,” Rich says. “There is going to be some mortality on these large landscape events because they’re so big, but that part of the equation comes back pretty rapidly.”
Protect your home
How your garden and landscaping choices can save your home and your life
“Fires can turn on you in a second,” says Nick Federoff. “You just don’t know what is going to happen.”
Nick knows better than most. The host of the award-winning, nationally-syndicated weekly radio program “Nick Federoff on Gardening” has seen the aftermath first hand in his native Southern California.
“We’ve had some devastating fires over the years,” Nick says. “Driving by the communities today that were hit 10 years ago, many of them are still ghost towns. It’s really sad. When I drive down the freeway, the hills are charred, homes are missing. They never rebuilt.”
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, as of July 12, there were 36 large fires burning their way through 12 states. Colorado has been hit particularly hard. The Waldo Canyon Fire, the most destructive in the state’s history, ravaged through 28 square miles and destroyed nearly 350 homes. It began June 23 and burned for 18 straight days before it was fully contained. Since Jan. 1, more than 3.2 million acres of land in the U.S. has gone up in flames.
These wildfires have spread through the dry-as-tinder Western landscape at a terrifying speed. Nick tells a story of making the four-hour drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas early one morning. He was on his way to a trade show when he spotted a flickering light on a nearby hilltop.
“The next day when I drove back, the freeway was closed down right there, because that fire had blazed through everything,” he says. “It literally jumped over an eight-lane freeway. It was devastating.”
What can be done against such a ruthless force of nature? Believe it or not, there are preventative measures that can help, and they start in your garden. Homeowners can substantially increase the chance of their home surviving a wildfire by taking these steps.
Pick the right plants
Nick believes in the power of fire-resistant plants. There is no such thing as a fireproof plant, but certain plants have qualities that help them slow down a fire, rather than feeding the flames. Look for plants that are low in oils and packed with moisture, like ice plants or escallonia. Herbaceous shrubs are a great choice. In fact, if you break the leaves open you may be shocked by the amount of water these plants contain.
Still, it seems hard to believe. Could these plants really make a difference in a real-world situation when the flames are licking at your door?
“They really do,” Nick says. “They end up becoming buffer plants between the fire and your home – especially if the fire is on the ground.”
Of course, these plants can’t do their job if you don’t take care of them. To maintain their fire resistance, they must be watered and pruned to remove dead leaves and branches. Otherwise, they’ll catch fire just as easily as a drifting tumbleweed. Contact your local nursery or garden center to find fire-resistant selections appropriate for your area, or check out the list above to get started.
Plan with plants
Here are some low-oil, high-moisture, fire-resistant plants:
Maintain a defensible barrier
Create a buffer zone by clearing all flammable plant materials within 30 to 100 feet of your home. This includes branches hanging over your house or garage, as wildfires often travel through the treetops. Also, if you have a fireplace and chimney, be certain that you trim any tree limbs within 10 feet of the chimney.
Wildfires often race through high weeds, which is another reason to keep your garden and landscape looking sharp and weed-free.
“The bottom line is to keep everything as clean as possible,” Nick says. “But if you are going to go out and cut the weeds down and allow the weeds to fall and not clean them up, that’s better than leaving them tall.”
Keep your weeds under control, and strategically place plants as a barrier. The plants should not be laid out in continuous beds, but should be widely spaced to create additional buffers that can prevent a fire from spreading.
There are many potential fire hazards around the house that are often overlooked. The first place to look is the roof. Clean all needles and leaves from the roof, eaves and rain gutters.
“There may be pine cones or leaves just sitting there,” Nick says. “People think they are going to just compost down – that’s not necessarily true.”
Be sure there aren’t any dead leaves, branches or birds’ nests congregating near the chimney either, as they make good kindling if a spark jumps out.
Generally, any sparks that come out of your chimney won’t travel farther than 10 feet. Still, it’s a good idea to cover your chimney outlet or flue with a spark arresting half-inch mesh screen. Also, you should have the inside of your chimney swept annually.
Many people keep a small stack of firewood right outside their front or side door for easy access. Nick says to remember the 30 Feet Rule and stack those woodpiles at least that far from buildings, fences, or combustible materials.
“I’d rather have you stick that firewood inside the house as opposed to outside,” he says.
There are many tools on the market today that can help you retrofit your house. For instance, you can install spark-resisting vents underneath the eaves of your house. They are designed so that an ember cannot travel through the network of metal material. Nick also recommends purchasing a flammable liquid storage box.
“For a few hundred bucks you get this steel box and put your oil and gas inside there, and if it happens to ignite, it will be contained within that box,” he says.
Finally, fire extinguishers and smoke detectors should be kept in the garden shed, patio, garage, or wherever you do your gardening. Of course, you should check the extinguishers and change the batteries in the smoke detectors annually to ensure they will be ready if you need them.