Firefighting Requires Military-Like Maneuvers
Wildland firefighting is the most warfare-like of all firefighting activities. It requires strategic and tactical planning, ground troops, air attacks, transportation, food, medical staff and supplies, clothing. The list goes on.
Boots on the Ground
When wildfire strikes, local fire departments along with federal, state and local National Guard have boots on the ground and helicopters in the air. “[It’s] very similar to combat conditions in Afghanistan,” according to Major Troy Brown, an aviation support commander at Buckley Air Force Base in Longmont, Colorado.
In fact, military staff have often studied wildland firefighting to learn what they could about rapid mobilization and dynamic decision-making. (See related article, “Invasion on the West Coast: The War Story You Never Heard,” to see how wildfire was used as a potential weapon in WWII.)
The Art of War
The ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu in his definitive treatise The Art of War identified some basic strategies which are easily applied to the war on wildfires:
- Know your enemy. This requires a complete size-up of the situation to determine conditions (location, size, weather, available radio frequencies) and safety (such as best access, special hazards, and additional resources needed).
- Move quickly on your enemy. Firefighters immediately attempt to save lives, stop the fire, and protect property. This is done by establishing an anchor point where firefighters can safely control the fire without getting burned. With bulldozers and land equipment,firefighters clear a ring around the fire area and attempt to eliminate all fuel in the fire’s path. As the fire approaches the ring, it can no longer spread with no fuel in its path. Fire fighters also look for a natural edge or boundary, such as a road, stream or field, and they start a controlled burn of all the fuel between the barrier and the fire. Air tankers and helicopters fly over the fire and dump water, fire retardant and chemical foam (such as ammonium phosphate) on the fire. In some areas, pilot-less computer-controlled air tankers used, to keep firefighters out of harm’s way.
- Strike when your enemy is weak. The strategy of “overwhelming force” was successfully used by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf in the 1991 campaign to evict Saddam Hussein’s invading forces from Kuwait. Their strategy included five weeks of aerial attacks before committing ground troops. According to retired wildland firefighter Bill Gabbert, the use
of overwhelming force on new fires can sometimes keep a small fire from becoming a megafire.
His prescription for this is:
“Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force, using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible.”
Firefighters use a Fire Behavior Hauling Chart to determine which firefighting tactic to use based on flame length. For instance, if flame length is less than four feet high, it can be attacked using hand tools. Flame lengths of four to eight feet are too intense for direct attack using hand tools; instead, bulldozers, tractors, airtankers and helicopters are used. Serious problems occur whenever the flame length is over eight feet.
The Right Stuff
Elite, ground-based firefighters fit into two categories:
Hotshots – These highly trained firefighters work in 20-person teams; their main job is to build a firebreak around the fire to keep it from spreading. Hotshots are employed by the U.S. Forest Service.
Smokejumpers – These are the paratroopers who jump out of planes or rappel from helicopters to access small blazes located in remote areas. Their job is to suppress small fires before they are able to spread into larger ones. Smokejumpers use the same firefighting techniques as the Hotshots once they have landed on the ground. There are only a few hundred Smokejumpers in the entire United States, all employed by either the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service.
Like their military counterparts, these firefighting heroes undergo extremely rigorous training to prepare for their jobs. They work in 24-hour shifts, even while battling blazes, with little to no rest.
At a moment’s notice, firefighters, chiefs and officers and must be armed with the required knowledge to develop strategy, apply tactics, and effectively utilize their highly trained manpower to fight the wildfire. It’s a battle they must win every time.