USA – Fire season is inevitable every year throughout the Western United States. Over the years, wildfires have burned millions of acres, destroyed thousands of structures, and caused multiple injuries and fatalities, not only to civilians but to firefighters as well. These days, there are very few wildfires that dont threaten lives, structures and infrastructure from the onset. And when it becomes hot, dry and windy, the threat is dramatically elevated to the point that these wildfires can quickly over-tax resources and incident commanders (ICs).
The wildland/urban interface (WUI)an area where structures abut the wildlandhas become more dynamic than ever, due to populous growth, expansions of urban sprawl into the rural areas, and more and more people moving out of city areas. The wildland/urban intermix is a situation where structures are scattered throughout a wildland area. Structures in the WUI are often identified as housing tracts or commercial/residential developments adjacent to a wildland area. Here there is a greater potential for structure-to-structure ignition. WUI fires dont need to be large in size to cause loss of life and significant damage. In fact, most of the damage typically occurs in the first operational period when conditions are conducive for large and rapid growth.
Municipal firefighters can be caught off guard in the WUI simply because they lack the same knowledge, skills and abilities (KSA) that wildland firefighters possess. This adds to the challenge of treading that fine line between urban and wildland firefighters as it relates to tactics, strategies and assignments.
The Oct. 26, 2006, Esperanza Fire in Riverside County, CA, tragically took the lives of five highly experienced U.S. Forest Service firefighters. This tragedy, coupled with numerous other near tragic or tragic fires in the WUI, quickly became a game-changer.
In the past, decisions by Command and company officers were typically based on the threat to the structures, not on the fire behavior and firefighter safety. Further examination revealed that when things went terribly wrongin some cases, firefighters paying the ultimate sacrificethe structures were unoccupied and still burned down.
How can firefighters better prepare for and battle these unique fires? After all, on even relatively small fires, ICs are frequently caught off guard due to the complexities that a WUI fire poses and its rapid growth. Having standardization and common terminology, as illustrated by the Incident Command System, is a must. ICs must possess a thorough understanding of current terminology, strategies and tactics, and new philosophies, while having the ability to understand and predict fire behavior, coupled with the proper skill set required of any good fireground commander.
With the new CAL FIRE WUI guidelines that are being recognized globally, firefighters still defend structures and protect lives, but with common terms and a toolbox of multiple tactics and strategies that can be drawn from as fire conditions dictate. Company and chief officers must base their decisions and actions on the fire behavior with emphasis on firefighter safety, not a structure that could be rebuilt.
As with any incident, there are multiple priorities. Following are the three key priorities on a WUI incident, in order of importance:
Property and environment preservation
Set SMART objectives (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound) using the Box Theory. This involves outlining what must be done to ultimately control the fire, and includes visible control points within which the fire will be contained (also known as the box). Predict fire spread and set up a realistic containment box by taking in the potential growth.
Successful operations are built on the leaders ability to define and communicate their intent so that it empowers their subordinates to exercise their initiative. A leaders intent is a clear, concise statement that communicates three essential pieces of information that individuals must know to achieve the mission: Task, Purpose and End State (what the incident should look like when it is contained). Every leader, whether a crew leader, group leader, branch leader, etc., is a leader at their own level. They should share the ICs intent based on his/her incident objectives.
The ability to understand, predict and communicate the predicted (forecasted) fire behavior is the number one component of a successful plan. This needs to occur down to the subordinate leadership, such as branches, divisions/groups, strike team and task force leaders and engine/crew bosses. This allows ICs to rely on these officers to take appropriate action based on the leaders intent along with the incident objectives, policies and procedures. This becomes imperative during fast-moving WUI fires when there is a breakdown of communications and the inability for centralized Command to keep up with the pace and complexities of the incident.
Lets now review some factors that will be critical to incident success.
Branch early and often
A critical lesson learned from fast-moving Southern California WUI fires is to geographically branch the incident early on when the fire has large fire growth potential. The IC can then delegate their objectives, strategies and intent down to the branches, allowing the branches to best manage their individual area by implementing the appropriate tactics based on fire behavior. Expectations from the IC should include the geographical area covered by the branch, as well as strategies, division/group assignments and organization, PACE (Primary, Alternate, Contingency and Emergency) plans, ordering protocols and communications. The branches are also able to assist with planning and the ICS 215 process due to their higher level of KSAs.
Incident command post
Normally, the first-in chief officer needs to establish and announce the incident command post (ICP) location. Ensure that the location of the ICP will not be threatened by the fire. It should be large enough to accommodate all the cooperating and assisting agencies. Further, there must be ICP support that will assist with communications, resource tracking and accountability. This will also allow the IC to step away to address the media, political figures and cooperators/agency representatives. ICP support training must happen prior to an incident so the IC does not need to bring staff up to speed.
A WUI incident requires law enforcement participation on numerous fronts. They are responsible for evacuations, road closures, animal control, coordination of shelters, crowd control, etc. As such, the order needs to be placed early on for a law enforcement supervisor, a sergeant (or above) who can embed themselves at the command post either in Unified Command or as a Law Enforcement Branch or Law Group. This will be helpful, as they can coordinate the law enforcement assets and work directly with the IC by understanding the fire spread as it relates to evacuations and closures. The law enforcement units in the field can also be used as scouts when they are driving around and conducting evacuations, as they might see where the fire is moving and report that back to the ICP. Standardization with terminology and operating procedures beforehand, along with pre-incident training and exercises, is also a key to success.
The staging area(s) will be a pivotal component for success early on. The staging area needs to be separate from the ICP and large enough to accommodate a large number of resources. Setting minimum inventories with the staging area manager (STAM) will assist with decision points on ordering resources. When those thresholds are met, the IC/operations section chief (OSC) evaluates whether there is need to order additional resources based on containment and incident needs.
Be prepared to communicate on multiple frequencies. Get your incident off the dispatch channel to a separate Command Frequency. Immediately order multiple Tactical Nets so that the branches can give divisions their own tactical channel when expansion occurs. Ensure that communication with the Air Attack Group Supervisor (ATGS or Air Tac) is established and maintained, normally done on Air to Ground. Staging needs direction on communications, command is a good default for them. They will also need the expanding communications plan so that they are able to inform the staged resources.
The ATGS can see the big picture, and will assist in helping develop the objectives and strategies. Communication needs to occur immediately after their arrival on either command, air to ground, or tactical frequencies. They can be helpful with access, spread predictions and incident potential. They will manage all the air assets, assist with suppression and containment, while maintaining a safe working area over the fire. The ATGS will be best to help with aviation resource ordering, as they have a good idea of whats available and required. The ATGS will also brief incoming media aircraft as to the fire information and coordinate them into the Fire Traffic Area to obtain footage of the fire.
Like many relationships in the fire service, the key to working with the media starts well before an incident. It is imperative that the media gets the facts, as they can assist with sharing public information and evacuation information. Today, with social media, there is so much misinformation that can cause more confusion and complexities. Embracing the media, as well as social media, is a must as they help the IC get the factual message out and stay ahead of the misinformation that happens on almost every incident.
There will be a need to deal with medical emergencies inside the footprint of the incident. Rather than having separate dispatches into the fire area, the ICP should be the coordination point. The IC needs to convey to dispatch the fire area and direct them to communicate with them about any medical emergencies that occur, so that they can determine the best mitigation measures. This will help prevent confusion and lack of control on the incident.
Similar to law enforcement, the Medical Group Supervisor should embed themselves at the ICP, and when medical emergencies occur, the Med Group can direct their resources to handle it in coordination with the respective geographic branch and/or division.
The resourceswhich can be squads, Type 5 and 6 Engines and ambulancesneed to be staged separate from the ICP and staging area, allowing them access into the fire area.
Throughout the Western United States, there are multiple WUI drills, workshops and training. Such training goes beyond tactics to include case studies, fire behavior and basic wildland fire strategies, while focusing on firefighter safety and survival. It is also important for this training to exercise pre-incident emergency plans to help command officers become familiar with and validate these plans. These plans should be regularly updated to reflect changes in the community and to overall emergency management.
The successes during a WUI incident are dependent on pre-incident training, not only with fire disciplines, but also the other cooperators that have been discussed. There are very few large-scale WUI Incidents that wont require mutual aid and multiple agencies and disciplines coming together as a team. Understanding and embracing this with pre-meetings, networking and tabletop exercises will help better prepare agencies during a WUI incident.