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News Release
  Release No. 0303.07
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USDA Press Office (202) 720-4623

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  THE BASICS OF WILDLAND FIREFIGHTING
  June 27, 2008
 

Fire always has been a part of American ecosystems. Firefighting is hard, dirty work.

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

  • Using chainsaws, shovels, and Pulaskis, firefighters generally work shifts of 12 to a maximum of 16 hours constructing breaks in the fire's fuel, or "fireline". A fireline is cleared of vegetation down to the mineral soil. Pulaskis were developed by a Forest Service Ranger Ed Pulaski that saved 30 men at the risk of his personal safety in the fires of 1910. The tool named for Ranger Pulaski is an ax on one side and digging hoe on the other.
  • In some suitable areas, bulldozers are used to build fireline with the same purpose of eliminating burnable fuels from the path of the fire. All fireline must be rehabilitated to allow for future vegetation growth.
  • Firefighters also slow the spread of fires using portable pumps leading from water bodies such as streams and lakes to wet down fuels, helicopters to pinpoint drop water on hot spots, airtankers to lay down a line of retardant that slows the fire allowing firefighters to proceed more effectively.
  • Watertenders are tanker trucks that transport water to various parts of the fire. They will water down dusty roads to improve travel safety, refill engines, and add water to portable holding bags called 'pumpkins' because of their orange color that serve as dipping facilities for helicopters.
  • Engines are small trucks equipped with water, pumps, water hose and tools to respond to and support ongoing fire suppression activities.

CAMP

  • Firefighters are housed at a fire camp which resembles a small city. The camp provides meals, showers, a sleeping area on the ground and portable toilets. Firefighters are usually briefed every morning at 6:00 a.m. and if there is a night shift at 6:00 p.m. where they receive their firefighting instructions, safety information, ground and air radio frequencies, available aviation assets and the location of camp medical services and human resources assistance. This information is contained in an 'IAP' – an Incident Action Plan that is issued twice daily if there are two shifts.
  • If travel time to the side (or flank) of the fire where firefighters are assigned, they could be asked to 'spike out' which means sleep in place rather than in the camp. These are called 'coyote camps' and the firefighters either eat Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) already collected in fire camp before they travel to their fireline or helicopters may shuttle in food and water.
  • Firefighters are generally only allowed to work 14 days straight and must take two days of rest at that point. This rule manages fatigue which can lead to poor decision making.

THE FIREFIGHTERS

In the U.S., firefighters are generally organized into crews.

From the ground -

1) Engine crews are responsible for initial attack of fires in their immediate area. Initial attack is the term used by the first responders to a wildland fire.

2) Hand crews construct fuel breaks using chainsaws, shovels and axes. They also "mop up" which is putting the fire out by breaking up the fuels piece by piece from the fireline inwards toward the fire after it has been contained.

There are two kinds of hand crews available through the national system: Type I crews, or Hotshot crews; and Type II crews. Each crew consists of 20 firefighters.

  • The Hotshot crews are made up of more experienced firefighters; they also have much higher physical fitness standards. There are over 90 Hotshot Crews available, 67 of these are U.S. Forest Service crews.
  • Type 2 crews are generally composed of 'the militia'. These are land management agency employees with other jobs such as wildlife biologist, silviculturist, public affairs specialists and recreation managers that gain qualifications as firefighters as 'other duties as assigned'. There are also privately contracted Type 2 crews. There are about 400 Type 2 crews in the system.

From the air -

3) Heli-rappellers and Helitack Crews perform initial attack on small remote fires. Rappellers rappel from the helicopter to the ground, helitack crews are delivered to the fire by helicopter after specific aviation training. Crew size varies from eight to ten members.

4) Smokejumpers perform initial attack on small, remote fires using round parachutes based on the military model. Three hundred Forest Service Smokejumpers work out of seven bases in the west. The smokejumper program was started in 1940 and included veterans from World War II.