Firefighters blaze new trails with advanced tools, training

Firefighters blaze new trails with advanced tools, training

12 November 2006

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Wailuku, HI, USA — It could have been much worse.

With winds gusting up to 20 mph and tall grass and trees covering acres of abandoned pineapple fields, Molokai fire Capt. Travis Tancayo could envision the potential for destruction when the alarm sounded for a brush fire in the Mahana area at 1:21 p.m. Sept. 22.

“That’s prime time, bad fire time,” said Tancayo, who called on his training in fighting wildfires to quickly orchestrate the firefighting attack.

As he and other Hoolehua firefighters headed to the fire with a special off-road tanker truck, Tancayo was on the phone with a county bulldozer operator he knew would be somewhere in the area.

“It was rocking and rolling,” Tancayo said, recalling the fire scene that included plenty of 5-foot-high grass and 10-foot-high koa trees to burn. “If we didn’t stop it, it would be burning big-time.”

Using foam, which reduces the surface tension so less water can go further, and calling in a helicopter to make water drops, firefighters worked to stop the fire before it could cross a fence line into territory inaccessible by truck, Tancayo said.

Instead of consuming thousands of acres, the suspicious fire was contained to 15 acres before nightfall.

For Tancayo and other Maui Fire Department wildland team members, more equipment and hours of training in fighting such fires have paid off in ways that often go unnoticed.

More effective firefighting has resulted in fewer large headline-grabbing brush fires, said Battalion Chief Jeff Shaffer.

“It’s made amazing amounts of difference,” Shaffer said. “We’ve had a lot of little brush fires we’ve been able to catch within an hour or two or three or four.

“By applying recently developed strategy and techniques, throwing more resources at these fires, we have prevented them from growing into the extended fires. We have prevented these three-day or one-week fires.”

With support from the Maui County administration, Fire Chief Carl Kaupalolo and his administration initiated the wildland training in the spring of 2003, Shaffer said.

Firefighters have attended training classes and annual conferences that include firefighters from California, Nevada and Hawaii.

Wildland urban interface trucks, which are taller than regular firetrucks so they can traverse more rugged terrain, are stationed at Napili and on Molokai and Lanai.

“Fighting a wildland fire is totally different from fighting a structural fire,” said Capt. Mark Paranada, who was initially in charge of implementing the program.

While a state Department of Forestry and Wildlife wildland team was being called in to help fight some fires in remote areas, Paranada said the chief wanted Maui Fire Department firefighters to be trained in wildland firefighting techniques as well.

“Most of our fires are brush fires,” said Shaffer, who took over the wildland program after Paranada was promoted. “The chiefs recognized we needed to improve on the wildland training to protect property and save lives, especially the lives of our firefighters.”

After Shaffer was promoted earlier this year, Kahului engine Capt. Jamie Joyo became the department’s wildland coordinator.

Of approximately 270 Maui County firefighters working on the line, 120 signed up to be part of the wildland team.

About 45 firefighters have completed basic requirements. The training to be certified includes a 40-hour class and physical agility test that involves walking three miles within a 45-minute period while carrying a 45-pound backpack.

“You have to be in pretty good condition,” Joyo said, noting wildland firefighters may have to hike uphill carrying water and firefighting hand tools to areas where hydrants aren’t available.

This year, wildland team members have been activated to respond along with other fire crews to seven fires, including ones in September that burned 4,000 acres at Maalaea and 2,900 acres at Kahikinui on Maui and an October fire that blackened 600 acres on Lanai.

“As the program gets more established, we will see it getting utilized more and more,” Joyo said.

Unlike a structure fire, where firefighters work to contain a blaze in a smaller area, a wildfire might be allowed to burn in uninhabited areas with no property of value as part of the firefighting strategy, Joyo said.

“You would pick the most opportune time to use resources to put it out,” he said. “It might look really bad and the fire gets really big.”

At times using existing roads and trails, Joyo said firefighters will create a barrier to stop the fire as it burns outward toward the spot. Firefighters will anchor the fire line, then flank to defend it.

Another technique, called cold trailing, involves working to ensure that the edge of the fire is wide enough and free of fuel so the fire won’t flare up, Joyo said. Using hand tools, firefighters extinguish what’s burning and move brush so it won’t ignite.

The firefighters also may work on the ground to ensure that a burning area has been extinguished after a helicopter drops water on the spot, Joyo said.

Bulldozers may also be used to cut fire lines.

“They’re a very good friend of a wildland team,” Joyo said. “They can cut a swath larger and faster than we can.”

The hand tools carried by wildland firefighters include Mc-Leods that are part rake and part hoe, Pulaskis that are half ax and half pick, and chainsaws. Another tool is the brush beater, which resembles a broomstick with a rubber mat used to smother flames.

Instead of wearing jackets with three layers of insulation, steel-toed boots and heavy helmets that serve as protection in structure fires, wildland firefighters wear lighter boots and helmets and flame-retardant Nomex jackets and pants.

The wildland gear, which may be up to 50 pounds lighter than structural gear, allows for more movement by a wildland firefighter, who also carries a 5-gallon backpack pump and one of the hand tools.

“If they would use structural gear in a wildland setting, they would overheat in a few minutes,” Joyo said.

All too aware of the recent deaths of five firefighters in a massive California brush fire, wildland firefighters also carry fire shelters that can be deployed like a pup tent to shield a firefighter who is in danger of being overrun by flames.

“We haven’t had a shelter deployment yet, but you would rather have one and not need it than not have one and need it,” Shaffer said.

Hand-held devices called kestrels allow the firefighters to measure wind speed and direction, altitude, temperature and humidity.

Each fire has its unique challenges.

At the Kahikinui fire at the 4,000-foot elevation, firefighters were aware of archaeological sites including a heiau, fishing village and possible burial sites, Joyo said.

The fire, which was started at several points along the highway, burned into two large fires in an area with a 40-minute turnaround to refill tankers at Ulupalakua Ranch.

Portable tanks set up at the fire scene were used by both wildland firefighters and helicopters.

Joyo said the wildland team worked on a quarter-mile flank adjacent to homes, which were spared as the firefighters created a 10-foot-wide fire edge. Firefighters had to dig a couple of feet down in the rocky terrain to ensure that the fire was extinguished, he said, because vines burning underground allowed the fire to travel in air pockets even after seeming to be extinguished on the surface.

On Lanai, Joyo said the wildland team built spaces to defend sensitive electrical equipment and water tanks from the advancing fire so residents wouldn’t be cut off from the island’s water supply.

On Molokai, Tancayo said much of the firefighting effort begins with planning well before a fire breaks out.

After large brush fires ravaged the island in previous years, the Molokai Fire Task Force was formed to include representatives from the fire department, county Public Works Department, Nature Conservancy and major landowners.

The Fire Department made arrangements with Public Works to keep bulldozers in critical areas around the island during fire season, Tancayo said. The Fire Department also paid for classes in firefighting techniques for some bulldozer operators.

Tancayo, a Molokai native, has scouted roads, trails and other landmarks in his district, knowing that gates that may be open one day may later have a lock.

So when the Mahana fire started in a former potato field, “I knew exactly where it was,” he said.

“It takes constant monitoring,” he said. “We’re getting better equipment; more classes are available. It’s working out really well.”

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