Forest Service trains first responders through live suppression drill
Initial response tactics of local Forest Service agencies were under much scrutiny during the 2012 Chips Fire, and many citizens were concerned responders did not handle the situation in a timely manner.
Almanor Ranger District Prevention Officer Melissa Hennessey said there are many factors considered when suppressing a fire, but the No. 1 goal is always safety. “One of the 10 fire orders we abide by is to fight fire aggressively but provide for safety first,” said Hennessey.
In preparation for the approaching fire season, and to ensure initial responses are as productive as possible, the ranger district staged a surprise wildfire suppression training May 15, approximately 10 miles outside of Chester.
Although it was just a drill, all personnel were ready to attack the fire head on to ensure it did not spread outside its intended 15-mile radius. The exercise was staged just as if the fire were accidental. At approximately 10:39 a.m. dispatch radioed out to all of the district’s available resources in response to a smoke report 2 miles west of Stump Ranch. To avoid startling the public, dispatch used the admin net frequency to make the call.
Resources called to the scene included battalions 11 and 12; engines 12, 14 and 16; water tender 185; and ARD crew 1. The training exercise included five new firefighters, one of whom had never been on scene before, and three trainees who were assigned to take the rolls of engine boss, incident commander and burn boss.
There were very light winds that morning, with the expectation of heavier winds by the afternoon. The area being staged had relatively low fuel loading, and is part of Almanor Basin’s defensible fuel profile zone. Before staging the drill, ARD received permission to do so from the Plumas County Air Quality Advisory.
First on scene was the assigned incident commander (IC), which in this case was John (Scotty) Outland, an incident commander type 4 trainee with nine years of fire suppression experience. As IC, his job was to “size up” the scene and ensure the area was safe enough for crews to move forward.
The Forest Service size-up report consists of determining the incident type, figuring out precise location and jurisdiction, estimating the incident size and status of the fire, establishing a name for the fire, examining weather conditions, monitoring radio frequencies, formulating the best access route, assessing if there are any special hazards or concerns and calling out for additional resources if needed.
After assessing the situation, Outland called crews forward. Engine 12 showed up first, followed by crew 1 marching in on foot. According to Hennessey, the engines park as close to the fire as they can and the crews park far from the scene and march in as a safety precaution. Engines 16 and 14 were next to arrive.
All responders came from the Almanor Ranger District, with the exception of engine 14, which traveled to the scene from Mineral. By 11:30 a.m. all units were briefed and ready to go. IC Outland said their strategy was to use an “anchor and flank” method to attack the fire, which consisted of first building a barrier around each side of the fire to avoid spreading.
As part of his training exercise, Outland was asked a variety of questions such as what the fire’s origins were, if any structures were threatened and if there were any injuries. As IC, it was his duty to know the answers to the questions but also to delegate the answers to someone else so he could stay as alert as possible.
Although it was a drill, the firefighters were dealing with a very live fire and had to work diligently to ensure it stayed where they wanted it. Hennessey said that it is common for firefighters to be stressed out when arriving on scene but it is important for them to stay aware, keep calm and have a clear mind in order to get the job done safely and quickly.
Each firefighter played an important role in suppressing the fire. Engine crews put in hose lays and set up pumping systems to help extinguish the flames, while hand crews cut fire lines with Pulaskis, used McLeods to rake forest debris, ran chainsaws to cut large dead and down debris, and employed shovels to dig line and knock down flames.
The Dusty Fire, which started as 5 acres of deliberate burning, was contained by 4 p.m., roughly six hours after it was reported.