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Fighting fire with Fire(fighters)

When wildfires occur regularly in an area don't build your house in their path


The fire season is now upon us and we hear the same old thing from the media. “This is predicted to be the worst fire season ever,” they will say. “Stay tuned, only our station has the latest details.”

If we have a drought, they report that everything is dry and everything will burn up. If we have a wet season, they report the grass grew high but will soon dry out and everything will burn up. Seems like nature just can’t get a break from the mainstream media.

Reporters, who you can tell have been outdoors maybe three times in their life, stand in full firefighting attire, cleaned and ironed, with the fire over their shoulder about 150 miles away. “Just over my shoulder, you can see the billowing smoke from the devastating fire that has destroyed everything in its path…”

Then they show the multimillion dollar homes that get burned down. When fires occur in a certain area every two or three years, try this advice - Don’t build your home in its path!

I’ve fought fires years ago during seven summers while working for the Forest Service. In my experience, most of the work in the battle gets done by air – either by bombers with retardant, helicopters with water or more commonly by Mother Nature with rain or snow.

The chain of command in firefighting resembles that of the military, with us grunts (privates) doing most of the work. As you move up the ladder, it seems less work gets done by the corporals, sergeants, lieutenants, captains, majors, colonels and especially the generals. There are squad bosses, line bosses, section bosses, dozer bosses, tanker bosses, fire bosses, etc. I guess those of us on the bottom just wish we’d be a few rungs higher.

I recall one morning on the fire line when a group of about 50 of us were gathered around and they called all the bosses for a meeting. About 40 people got up and left. The remaining 10 of us just looked at each other, realizing our position on the fire totem pole.

Most fires, like most wars, can be summed up with one word – disorganization.

On a fire in Wyoming, our crew waded across a cold river as darkness set in and started building a fire line. We worked hard all night. As the first rays of daylight entered the canyon, we discovered that we dug line between the river and a nearby cliff. Oops. But we only did what we were told.

In the chill of the morning, the bosses let us sleep for a few hours. A heavy red sweatshirt of mine got a bit too close to some smoldering embers, which wouldn’t have been a big deal except for the fact I was in it. As I slept, about ¾ of the hood burned off. It reminded me of the scene in the Jeremiah Johnson movie when he experienced a similar situation sleeping over some coals.

On some fires, our crew would arrive before any tools got there so we would sit and wait, as the fire grew. We shouldn’t have complained, after all it’s job security, right? Other times it would be so cold at night that water bottles froze next to your head when you slept, while daytime temps reached 110 degrees. More people ended up in the infirmary than on the fire line.

In fire school, we learned about the Fire Triangle, which consists of heat, oxygen and fuel. If any of those things are taken away, we were taught, the fire goes out. I think we need to rename it the Fire Rectangle and add bosses to the equation.

Our crew was once flown back east on a C-130 to Knoxville, Tenn., for a week but we fought only a single fire for a few hours one night. The rain put it out the next day. The rest of the time we were on standby, which literally translated means staying at motels, touring the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Biltmore House and even doing a little wine-tasting.

But fighting fire isn’t always this easy. Most of the time you don’t eat or sleep very well and it’s some of the hardest work I’ve ever done, except maybe trying to write a humor story. When the fire is out and you’re back in your own bed, you tell yourself you’ll never fight another one. Then the check arrives in the mail and you anxiously await the next thunderstorm.

Firefighters could easily pass as clones; they all look alike out on the fire line. Everyone wears a fire-resistant Nomex outfit consisting of green pants and yellow shirt. It would be impossible to pick out an individual person in the crowd - “The guy over there with the green pants, yellow shirt, red handkerchief and yellow hardhat…”

A note to the Forest Service – get rid of the yellow shirts. Bees are attracted to them and people like me who are allergic to bees don’t appreciate this.

Speaking of Nomex, I recall a funny event while in college. The stuff was just getting popular then (the Nomex, not college) and a guy in my dorm came to my room bragging about his new yellow shirt that was fireproof. He was one of those know-it-all braggarts who told endless stories about his summers in a fire lookout in Montana and I was looking for any excuse to shut him up.

Being the smart aleck and nonbeliever that I was, I asked if it would be alright if I tested it out, with him in it of course. With several of us around, he didn’t want to back down and agreed to my little experiment. So I held his lighter (curious, I thought, why this firefighter carried a lighter when he didn’t smoke) under a sleeve, waiting to see what would happen. Maybe it was because the shirt was yellow that we didn’t see the flame take to the material right away. Just as he began an ear-to-ear grin and got about ¾ of his “I told you so” sentence out, we all noticed some smoke emanating from the elbow region.

He began swatting his arm as if a swarm of bees had landed. After the fire was successfully extinguished, he looked down at the huge black spot on his pretty new yellow shirt, turned and moped away back to his room. That day in the dorm would haunt my memory many times when on future fires. I wasn’t sure the stuff would be more successful at repelling fire or attracting bees. However, that was close to 30 years ago and I’m sure the technology has improved since then to where no one would make such a crazy bet.

Besides firefighters, helicopters are also used frequently during fires to drop things such as water and Helitack crews. I recall one such fire in Colorado where our crew was assigned a chopper to drop water on our section of the fire. Between the water-drops and our mop-up, we about had everything extinguished. We reported that we no longer had use of the chopper.

The response came back that the chopper was ours for another few drops so go ahead and use it. The daytime temps hovered around 100 and we didn’t feel like arguing. To mark where a drop should be, you wave your arms then get out of the way. During these last few drops, we cooled down with a free shower from above.

Humor would seem to be a prerequisite if you want to be a smokejumper, one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. Asked why they would jump out of a perfectly good airplane and into a dangerous fire, smokejumpers usually respond that there is no such thing as a perfectly good airplane. Maybe that’s reason enough to jump out of it in the first place. Some are even afraid to fly in commercial jetliners because they say there’s no open door from which to jump.

Scott Staats is a freelance outdoor writer. His column can be read every Tuesday in the Central Oregonian. He can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.



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Prineville

Fair

Humidity: 65%

Wind: 7 mph

  • 1 Oct 2014

    Clear 63°F 41°F

  • 2 Oct 2014

    Mostly Sunny 71°F 43°F