Fighting Fire with Fire

There are times when the only weapon you have against this ominous force is fire itself. (Photos by author.)
There are times when the only weapon you have against this ominous force is fire itself. (Photos by author.)

Let me first state that by no means will the tips and suggestions offered in this article replace the need for firefighters responsible for wildland suppression to attend a quality ignition operations class. That course, when delivered by competent instructors and including a field day to practice the ignition techniques, is invaluable. Not only does the training provide more confident and efficient personnel, it also improves the safety of fire suppression and firefighters themselves. Having safer, more effective fire personnel is a goal we all should strive for and work as a profession to develop and encourage through training and experience.

Burnout Operations

At the engine company level, we execute BURNOUT operations defined as igniting unburned fuel within the established containment lines. Most of the time, these are small acreage, and the ignition operation is of low complexity and fired by hand. There are some occasions when the burnout is of large acreage, and more exotic ignition devices and equipment are used. For the purpose of this article, I’ll discuss the basic techniques in low-complexity hand firing operations even though many of the principles carry over to the large higher-complexity ops. I will not be discussing BACKFIRE operations because those are much larger, higher-complexity operations that are intensively planned, often have separated management organizations, and are supervised by ignition specialists. Engine companies are likely to be involved in the holding or structure defense portion of the backfiring op but will usually not be supervising.

Four Principles

There are four basic principles to remember and consider prior to putting fire on the ground anywhere during suppression efforts.

1. Can this ignition operation be conducted safely without putting the engine company or any other members of the suppression response or civilians at risk? Basically, just because you have the legal authority granted by the Public Resources Code 4426 and the Health and Safety Code 41801 to conduct ignition operations under trained supervision for the protection of life and property doesn’t mean it is a wise tactical action every time. The skill that has to be developed by the company officer is knowledge of when to use fire and when not to. Every fire environment is different with unique considerations and demands that force the company officer to constantly access the dynamic fire scene. If the company officer makes the determination that safe and effective ignition operations can be performed, then ignition teams must consider the following.

2. Always initiate an ignition operation from an anchor point, and always end with tying in to an anchor or a containment line. This basic safety protocol ensures that personnel are always in proximity to or working toward an anchor point/safety zone/temporary refuge area (TRA). During the course of an operational period, there will be locations within the firing area that will have increased exposure relative to other locations because of the fire environment variables. The company officer should always brief the igniters to move during the ignition operation from a location of increased exposure to decreased exposure whenever possible.

3. Identify and reinforce the most likely point of escape. This identification is a critical initial step in planning and executing a successful burnout operation of any size. The overall goal of ignitions is to consume fuel and keep fire within containment lines. If the ignition crew properly identifies the most likely point of escape or the location the containment line would be weakest and then improves the holding strength of the line at that location, the entire operation is more likely to be successful. To accurately locate this weak spot, the ignition crew must be very adept in and observant of fire behavior.

The variables of the fire environment produce fire behavior that varies across the land and time. Fuels, weather, and topography mix to present a most likely point of fire front pressure to the containment lines. Whether that is fire flowing in drainage or a fuel type change in conjunction with increase slope, the skill is identifying these locations were fire environment variables will test your line-improve there first.

The first fire environment variable that has to be assessed is the most influential on fire behavior: the wind. Wind speed and direction determine whether the firing operation has favorable or unfavorable conditions by which to complete ignitions. Favorable conditions at the containment line are described as the wind blowing from the green side of the line across to the black. Unfavorable is the opposite, or winds blowing smoke and embers from the black side of the containment line across to the green side. Favorable or unfavorable firing conditions drive the specific and proper placement, pattern, and sequence of the ignition crew. Once that location has been identified, the ignition crew can place fire on the ground in a manner that increases the strength of the containment line or deepens the black next to the line. The goal is always to have hard black next to your containment line in sufficient depth to handle the brunt of the approaching fire front and eliminate the possibility of slop over.

4. Ignition should be regulated by pattern, sequence, and placement to ensure it will stay within the containment lines. Once a starting point has been identified, the real art of ignition operations begins in the selection of the pattern and sequence of the ignitions. I like to use the analogy of a painter who has a selection of brush sizes to choose from based on the painting project before him. There are times when the painting is easy and of low complexity; therefore the painter would likely select a brush of large size for maximum efficiency and speed. In contrast, there are times when the painting is of tedious detail and complexity; in such cases, the painter is likely to choose a very fine brush for maximum detail and works slowly. This is, in essence, what ignition supervisors need to consider, as they are painting with black and need to choose the right pattern and sequence (paintbrush) for the local conditions during that operational period.

This is the point where a printed article cannot convey properly the skills and training needed to pick the right ignition pattern and sequence. Engine company members must seek additional training and hopefully be able to conduct live fire training burns to witness and practice the effects of different black brushes on the landscape like the training found in the National Wildfire Coordinating Group course S-219 (formerly S-234). As described above, the ignition pattern will be painting black under favorable or unfavorable wind conditions, and accurate assessment of favorability is the most critical task to be performed. Once determined, then the correct pattern of igniters can be chosen for safety.

Additional Training

I cannot stress enough the need for engine company members to seek out additional training in ignition operations. Putting fire on the ground can be a complex operation that, if not properly trained for and accurately sized up, can possibly result in severe consequences. However, in contrast there are times that the speed and intensity of the main fire front is such that the only safe and effective tool we have is to fall back to a bigger box of containment lines and perform burnout operations to eliminate the fuels against the line prior to impact. This vital tool should be available to all engine companies deployed in wildland fire suppression. Like many of the specialty tools we have in the fire service, we don’t always have a need to use them, but when the incident presents itself, it is sure nice to have that tool.

This article is just a discussion of some of the critical considerations of using ignition operations at the engine company level. Remember: Even if you have the proper training and tools to perform ignition operations, the decision to apply fire may not fall within your authority based on agency specific direction or standard operating guidelines. If firing operations are within your authority at your agency, I encourage you to thoroughly evaluate each incident prior to choosing ignitions, have a safe and effective plan, brief all ignition and holding resources completely, and think about the fact that just because you can perform ignition operations doesn’t mean you always should.

Clarion UX