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Q&A: How Do Firefighters Battling Massive Forest Fires Stay Safe?

A pair of firefighters in a burning forest

At least 8,000 firefighters are currently deployed in Northern California to battle wind-aided wildfires that continue to spread. With 40 people already reported dead and many more still missing, the danger of these fires has been brought to the forefront.

While we focus on the evacuations, loss of life and destruction in the affected communities, it can be easy to forget that the men and women battling these blazes are also in intense danger. Firefighters have been deployed time and again this year to battle blazes all across the United States’ West. And it appears these frequent deployments will continue in a future that is sure to see more massive forest fires related to climate change and human intervention.

So how can firefighters now and in the future learn from these devastating fires so they can live to fight another day?

Jennifer Taylor, PhD, associate professor in the Dornsife School of Public Health, is the director of FIRST (Firefighter Injury Research and Safety Trends), a research center that looks deeply into the issues relating to firefighter well-being, including training and mindsets. She explains the unique field of wildland firefighting and how the people who do it can learn and keep themselves safe.

How do safety precautions and procedures change for wildfire fighters as compared to your town-based structure firefighters?

Depending on the type of fire a wildland firefighter is engaged with, the safety considerations can be very different.

For example, with a forest fire where there is no urban interface [highly populated areas], the fuel load — what fires burn to spread — is naturally combustible products. You don’t have all the petrochemically derived hazards and exposures that you would in the city-type of fire.

However, you also don’t have the containment that a city structure brings. Meaning, firefighters are out in the middle of a field with a burning fire where a change in wind direction could overcome them in a matter of minutes. The are many recent and historic examples of this — think the Granite Mountain Hotshots.

It’s interesting that wildland firefighters have very different gear sets than firefighters that serve residential and commercial communities. They very rarely wear self-contained breathing apparatus, probably because they have to carry a lot of their gear since they’re going out into unpopulated environments for long period of time.

One thing that the structural fire service is getting better at it is using their protective equipment because they know the risk of cancer they face without it. Wildland firefighters may not feel this message as strongly. Being in the middle of nowhere and working outside all day, they feel they can’t wear a self-contained breathing apparatus all the time.

What’s the best influence for keeping everyone safe in wildfire situations?

I think the concerns for safety are similar between structure and wildland firefighting. It depends on strong leadership and active communication. It requires an all-hands-on-deck mentality to do hazard and risk surveillance. And it requires strong, experienced teams that are not afraid to speak up about what they see and share those concerns.

In the current fires in California, I am most concerned with the exhaustion, rest, and recovery – both physical and psychological. For most firefighters, it’s not in their nature to take a break. They have to be given permission to recover. Some of these responders have been up for 36 hours or more. Under those circumstances, safety can go out the window and errors can happen to the responders and to the community.

We need a system for events like this where we draw firefighters nationally just like we do for floods and hurricanes. Firefighters are always willing to help, so I know that help is already being offered from all over the country.  What I feel optimistic about are ways to support the current responders with this incredible network, and circulate replacements in and out so that we give everyone time to return to the job with clear eyes and clear heads.

Can firefighters learn more on how to keep themselves safe from these wildfires themselves or from training for them?

I think during live events is when you actually learn how good your training was.

Wildland firefighters train just like structural firefighters do — they’re not doing on-the-fly training. And there are always lessons learned after these events, like after the Yarnell Hill Fire that killed the Granite Mountain Hotshots. Some of those lessons tell us what went well; most tell us what didn’t.

Media interested in talking to Taylor should contact Frank Otto at 215.571.4244 or fmo26@drexel.edu.

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