By Noah Nelson
When the weather gets hot, Wildland firefighters come out to play. While the majority of us spend our summers relaxing by the pool enjoying a cold beer or two, others spend their summers protecting the longevity of our forests around us. Whether it be natural or human-caused, these firefighters travel to remote fires across various terrains, ready to tackle any challenge.
In wanting to learn more, I sat down with a couple of wildland firefighters to find out what exactly they encounter on a daily basis. Due to the media restrictions of federal employees, these firefighters asked to remain anonymous.
“We work on BLM land as far north as the Columbia River. It’s a big swath of land in mostly Central Oregon. The dry area” recounted one of the firefighters.
BLM land is governed by the Bureau of Land Management. In Oregon and Washington, there are around 3.4 million acres under their control.
The BLM land they primarily work on is desert grassland, which both firefighters said that they very much prefer, as opposed to working in Oregon’s forests. They stated that the dry grass in BLM land burns out much quicker than dense treed terrain.
“In a grassland fire, as long as you are standing in the black (the part already burned) you are safe. With trees, you have to watch for falling limbs and you have to stay further back to ensure a blowup won’t happen,” one firefighter said, finishing his drink.
Grasslands are typically safer than forests simply due to their nature. They mostly lack trees, which are a main fuel source for fires. With a forest fire, the thick trees burn at much higher temperatures for far longer, and any firefighter in the area has to keep an eye out for fires above them. Fire can jump from tree to tree if the forest canopy is dense enough, which can cause burning limbs to fall from above. In a dry desert grassland, however, everything burns quickly and there is no danger from above, as long as the fire does not spread to a forest.
To help reduce the chance of large fires during the summer, controlled burns happen in the offseason. They burn dead leaves and debris in high-risk areas to prevent devastating fires in the future. This technique is called a prescribed burn.
During the summer months, these firefighters mimic the same idea. Firefighters walk the fireline, digging trenches that border the fire to control the direction of the burn, and how long it persists. This tactic allows the fires to burn out all of their potential fuels, reducing the likelihood of the fire spreading or reigniting in the future.
Firefighters in the past used these same tactics, but were much more unorganized due to a lack of telecommunication equipment. They had to rely on visual cues like communicating with mirrors or hand signals. This made the job more dangerous due to a lack of instantaneous communication, but that didn’t stop them from getting the job done.
The only time modern firefighters work to fully stop a fire instead of letting it burn out is when the fire is close to a structure. In these cases, larger fire engines come out and the use of fire retardant airdrops might happen.
If the fire is close to structures, burning at a faster rate, or if an immediate response is needed in a remote location, some special fire teams might be called to action.
One of these special teams is what’s known as a Hotshot Crew. This is a group of firefighters, usually about 20 strong, who specialize in fire suppression tactics that often end up taking them to some of the most dangerous areas of fire.
The danger of being a Hotshot should not be understated. In 1994, nine members of a Prineville, Oregon based Hotshot crew were all killed by a wildfire in Colorado. In 2013, 19 Hotshots were killed in a fire in Arizona; an event that became immortalized in the film Only The Brave.
Another high-risk crew that the firefighters mentioned are the Smokejumpers. This crew is similar to a Hotshot crew, but with a key difference. The Smokejumpers deploy to their location by para dropping both themselves and their equipment right where they need to be. Jumping out of a plane puts them on the scene of the fire faster than driving teams, allowing them to access remote areas of a fire that are either unreachable or just too far from other firefighters on land.
These teams get to use the “fun tools” such as fire grenades, flares, and more, to guide the fire away from high-risk areas. One of the firefighters stated that he went out on a hotshot crew for two weeks to help out on a large fire in Southern Oregon.
“The adrenaline that you have on a fire like that keeps you coming back. There’s nothing like throwing a fire grenade into the woods and watching it blow up all while getting paid to do so.”
Aside from the obvious danger, both firefighters stated that their biggest issue is simply securing enough funding for their department.
“If you ask any federal employee what their biggest issue is, they will all probably tell you that it’s funding. Everything we do and all of our equipment costs money, so it really comes down to what we can afford.”
This is an issue seen across the board, especially in areas like California where their fire season is all year round. Aside from the automobiles and planes that they use to mobilize, equipment used to create controlled burns all run up the cost of firefighting.
Despite a potentially high cost, we can all agree that a well-equipped firefighting force is important, not just to keep the firefighters safe, but to also ensure that the general population is protected from wildfires, which have been increasing in size and severity. Not only is the average wildfire season three and a half months longer than it was a few decades ago, but the number of annual large fires in the West has tripled — burning six times as many acres on average.
With stats like these, it is easy to see why we should all be thanking our firefighters for keeping us safe.