Breach! You’ve lost water pressure!” We’re in the desert, overlooking Eagle Mountain, at Camp Williams, as young wildland firefighters haul hoses through the brush, spray down dry vegetation and hack at the dirt with shovels to suppress a fire that is—at least this time—completely imaginary. The cadre of firefighting instructors have strung pink streamers from the sparse trees and shrubs to indicate where the “fire front” is and where the trainees should focus their attack. Occasionally, the instructors shout out changes in conditions that the trainees have to respond to accordingly, as if it were real, like the aforementioned loss of water pressure in a hoseline.
Training for the unpredictable
“In the wildland, fire behavior can change at the drop of a hat, and we need to be able to respond to those changes just as quickly,” says Randy Turrill, a Fire Operations Specialist with the Bureau of Land Management. Turrill is also the lead instructor for the workshop and has been a part of every engine operator course since its inception.
So, how do you train for an incident that presents so many unpredictable variables? Focus on the things you can control: efficiency, best practices and communication.
The Fire Engine Operator Training Workshop trainees come from both local and federal firefighting agencies, with workshop participants from Saratoga Springs, Lone Peak Fire District, Unified Fire Authority, National Parks Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs and BLM. They learn suppression tactics, readiness and review best practices for engine operations. Training scenarios also include practicing hose lays, mobile attacks and engine protection and field maintenance.
“Putting in a hose lay is putting in a hose lay. It’s been that way for…ever,” Turrill explains matter-of-factly. “But as we train, we’re always looking for ways to do it more quickly, more efficiently, more safely.”
Unified Fire Authority’s Jon Slatore, the Fire Management Officer for Camp Williams, emphasizes the importance of learning how to operate a fire engine safely. “One of the biggest risks we do have as wildland firefighters is driving,” says Slatore. That’s because drivers are often traveling long distances, over highways, in big, heavy equipment filled with water, making them more subject to rollovers. “More people are killed or injured driving than generally by any fire activity,” he says.
While the workshop allows trainees to become familiar with the fire engines and equipment, it also allows them to become more familiar with each other, improving communication between agencies. It’s a skill that will prove necessary as wildfire season ramps up and some wildland fires demand the response of multiple organizations.
“Some of these engines that are here today will be going throughout the West—California, Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, all over the place—to wherever they get called,” says Slatore.
“It’s taken years, but we’re very good at it now,” Turrill says of interagency communication. Improvements include something as simple and vital as making sure that all agencies have each other’s radio frequencies. “We have common communications,” says Turrill. “Not having it has caused issues and fatalities in other locations in the past, so we always make sure first that we can at least talk to each other.” And, when they get together to train, says Turrill, they can get the posturing out of the way—“the mating dance,” as he calls it. “So when we’re actually on an incident, the connection is already there, and we can work together more efficiently. We’re off and running faster.”
Dealing with busier wildfire seasons
The timing of the workshop also serves an important purpose. Most wildland firefighters are seasonal workers, fighting fire for five to six months out of the year. That means they spend the months outside of fire season “collecting cobwebs” on some of those firefighting skills, says Turrill. Training in May gives them a chance to brush up on their skills before the fire season really gets going. At least, that was once the case.
“It used to be May was a safe month to train in, before things got too busy,” says Turrill. “But back home in Cedar City and St. George, we’re already getting some fires down there.” As of this posting, the Toquerville Falls Fire is burning in Southern Utah, and the cause, while under investigation, is likely human activity. Most of the early-season fires Turrill has seen have been human-caused.
Slatore has noticed a similar trend, saying, “We’re coming on earlier, our seasons are staying longer, so we’re working people more hours.”
A large reason why? Growth, they say. A higher population means more human activity in more areas and more opportunities to start fires than there were previously.
“We have more people out there on the landscape, so we’re doing more urban-interface fires,” says Slatore. “If an incident has houses and communities involved, then now, all of sudden, we have more items to protect and our strategies have to change based on the fact that we have homes and people and other valuables at risk.” Slatore demonstrates this by pointing at the desert landscape around the training site. We’re on a relatively hard-to-reach dirt road, surrounded by acres of dry brush that can provide easy fuel for a fire, but the residential sprawl of Eagle Mountain is visible not far off.
Because there is more at-risk with a fire that could threaten a residential area, the response escalates accordingly…as does the cost. “The cost of fighting a fire includes a lot of effort and a lot of personnel in potentially dangerous positions,” says Turrill. “It can be expensive, especially if aircraft have to be called in, and people can be held accountable for the fires they cause.”
Looking at what’s ahead for the rest of wildfire season
The National Interagency Fire Center releases monthly reports on the outlook for significant wildland fire potential. According to June’s report, year-to-date acres burned in the U.S. is approximately 112% above the 10-year average, and, considering weather conditions and ongoing drought, above normal fire potential will continue in June in Southern Utah and shift to Northern Utah in July.
Because of ongoing drought conditions and record low precipitation levels, fire authorities in Southwestern Utah have implemented new fire restrictions, including banning campfires, fireworks, tracer ammunition and exploding targets from all unincorporated county, state and federally administered public lands in Washington, Kane, Garfield and Iron Counties. Similar conditions have triggered similar restrictions in Southeastern Utah as well, on BLM, USDA Forest Service, National Park Service, state and unincorporated private lands in Grand and San Juan Counties.
The Fire Management Officer for the Bureau of Land Management Color Country and Paria River Districts, Josh Tibbetts, says in a release, “Predictive services warns that Southern Utah’s Energy Release Component (ERC) is approaching critical thresholds. The ERC can serve as a good indicator of what we anticipate a fire season could look like across a designated area, as it tracks seasonal fire danger trends well.”
“May through August is typically a critical time for southern Utahns as both visitor numbers and fire danger tends to exponentially increase,” says Tibbetts. “This year’s outlook is no different.”
The critical nature of the next few months puts further weight on the necessity of early season wildland fire training. “This is the place to work the kinks out,” says Turrill, “Rather than during an actual fire.”
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