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.
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 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:
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.
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.