Adventure Sports Wilderness

Forest Fires and Outdoor Athletes

Wildland fireSummer is a perfect opportunity to spend more time in the forests and outdoors pursuing your favorite activities.  Unfortunately, the warmer climates and increased activity outdoors increases risks for wildfires.  Hikers, bikers, climbers and all athletes who get their adrenaline fix off paved roads needs to know a bit about wildfires and how to avoid them, protect themselves and fire safety in wildfire situations.

I was lucky enough to spend a summer as a wildland firefighter and found it to be one of the coolest and most challenging jobs I have ever had.  The science and study of wildfires is a very complex matter and most of the elite wildland firefighters I met always referred to themselves as “students of wildfire science” because they were always trying to learn more about this very large and always evolving discipline.  A few basics about wildland fires will be discussed here, as well as some links and information on where to learn more.

Perhaps the most important things that should be learned from experienced wildland firefighters are the basics.  To me, the basics include the “10 standard wildland firefighting orders” and the “18 watch-out situations”.  These are memorized and drilled into the heads of all new wildland firefighters simply because they save lives.

Watchout Situations:

  • Fire not scouted or sized up
  • In country not seen in daylight
  • Safety zones and escape routes not identified
  • Unfamiliar with weather and local factors influencing fire behavior
  • Uninformed on strategy, tactics and hazards
  • Instructions and assignments not clear
  • No communication link with crew members or supervisors
  • Constructing fireline without a safe anchor point
  • Building fireline downhill with fire below
  • Attempting frontal assault on fire
  • Unburned fuel between you and the fire
  • Cannot see the main fire, not in communication with anyone who can see main fire
  • Weather is getting hotter and drier
  • Wind increases and/or changes direction
  • Getting frequent spot fires across line
  • Terrain and fuels make escape to safe zones difficult
  • Taking a nap near the fireline

Fire Orders:

  • Fight fire aggressively but provide  for safety first
  • Initiate all action based on current and expected fire behavior
  • Recognize current weather conditions and obtain forecasts
  • Ensure instructions are given and understood
  • Obtain current fire information and status
  • Remain in communication with crews, supervisors and adjoining forces
  • Determine safety zones and escape routes
  • Establish lookouts in hazardous situations
  • Remain in control at all times
  • Stay alert, keep calm think clearly and act decisively

These orders and plans are the basics that are designed to keep those with training safe and alive when fighting wildland fires.  For the recreational outdoor person who encounters a fire in the wild, seeking safety should be the number one priority.  Once safe, contact should be made with the local fire department to inform them of the following information on the fire:

Incident Type: vegetation fire, vehicle accident, hazardous material involved, etc

Incident Status: fire behavior such as smouldering, running, creeping, etc

Location:be as exact as possible using landmarks, or latitude/longitude if possible

Incident size: rate of spread and potential for growth

Fuel type: trees, ground cover, trash

Wind speed and direction

Slope steepness and direction slopes face

Best access points: nearby roads the firefighters may use to gain entry

Special hazards and concerns

Cause:if known such as campfire, vehicle accident, lightening strike, etc

Values threatened:  houses and property involved

Weather:  raining, temperature, etc

Resources at scene:  who else is there

Perhaps the best advice for a non-trained person who is confronted with a wildland fire is to simply get out of the area.  Fire behavior is to move up-hill and caution should be used when walking on ridges or slopes with fire burning below.  Fire has a tendency to move up-hill at a frightening speed and the best bet is to not be in that position.  Smoke inhalation can be a problem and a simple bandanna tied around the face can help reduce inhalation of smoke particles and flying debris.  Eye protection should also be used, if available. 

When leaving the area of a fire, ensure that you are not moving into more danger and sometimes the most direct route to safety may be blocked.  Ensure that all of your party remains together and within eyesight of each other, keeping good communication along the way.  Take care of each other and move at the pace of the slowest member.  Remember that material items such as tents and campsite gear can be replaced. 

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1 comment

  1. I don’t think we have ever come across a more detailed medical and safety blog as this. We spent hours reading your topics. This topic in particular was fascinating as we so happened to caught in two fires this year and evacuated out. We are from the San Diego area and are not sure what started the fires, but they were horrific and caused a lot of damage. People need to be so careful during the dry season. We are lucky we were not one of the people that lost their homes.

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