Fighting Wildfires

Aug 8, 2016

The world’s total forest area is just over 4 billion hectares, which corresponds to an average of 0.6 ha per capita (31% of the Earth’s total land mass), according to a 2010 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The five most forest-rich countries are Brazil, Canada, the United States, the Russian Federation, and China, and although reforestation is significantly helping to reduce net loss in the northern hemisphere, wildfires are a continuous threat to both forest and farmland, and sometimes to cities and towns situated near the wildlands.

Wildland Forest Fighters (WFF) around the globe prepare and train to tackle the unique challenges of wildfires.

About 10% of the world’s forests are in Canada, where almost half the landscape is covered in woodland. An average of 8,300 forest fires have burned each year across the country over the past 25 years, and governments spend a total of about $500 million to $1 billion each year suppressing these fires. On top of that, Canadian wildland fire fighters also help battle fires in the U.S., when called upon, through the Canada/United States Reciprocal Forest Fire Fighting Arrangement.

While federal departments such as Parks Canada and Natural Resources Canada are mandated to monitor, detect and manage wildland fires, those who fight these fires in Canada are hired by the provincial/territorial ministries and agencies. Training meets a national standard set by the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC), which also coordinates the exchange of wildland firefighters between provinces as the need arises.

In the United States, Wildland firefighting agencies operate at the federal level (National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs), the state level (Dept. of Forestry, Dept. of Natural Resources), and at the municipal level. Hiring processes and education requirements vary by agency, but academic study in a related field (Forestry, Agriculture, Wildlife management, Natural Resources, etc) typically precedes basic wildland fire training and supplemental training. According to Amy Head, the spokesperson for California’s Forestry and Fire Protection department, both new hires and returning firefighters all undergo written exams and physical fitness testing to ensure each candidate meets state standards.

Wildland Fires
Most wildfires are relatively small; only 3% grow larger than 200 hectares. However, while fewer in number, fires that grow beyond 200 hectares account for 97% of the total area burned each year, which, in Canada, averages about 2.3 million hectares.

Wildfires in British Columbia burned approximately 280,605 hectares in 2015. The province experienced higher damage in 2014, burning almost 370,000 hectares, with $297.9 million in damage. In Alberta, the 2016 Fort McMurray fire alone burned more than 589,000 hectares, according to a provincial summary report.

13 May 2016 – Premier Rachel Notley and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visit Fort McMurray to see the damage caused by a wildfire that prompted the evacuation of the city. (photograph by Chris Schwarz)

By comparison, the U.S. average from 2006 to 2015 was 1,547,820 hectares (3,824,747 acres), according to the U.S. National Interagency Fire Centre. Of course, some years sustain excessive wildland damage. For instance, between the beginning of January and end of July 2015, some 2,307,369 ha (5,701,633 acres) of land had burned across the United States.

This spring, the Anderson Creek wildfire in Kansas and Oklahoma had fire crews working around the clock for more than a week, burning more than 161,874 ha (400,000 acres).

In California last year, 6,337 wildfires burned through 124,480 hectares (307,598 acres), however, three of them (the Valley, Butte and Rough Fires) accounted for almost 93% of the total burning destruction.

With approximately 60% of the Alberta’s land base classified a “Forest Protection Area,” the government’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry has the full protection mandate. To accomplish this, it has access to highly trained wildland firefighters through the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC). The province also leases or contracts a number of resources such as: airtankers; bulldozers; helicopters; and patrol aircraft to allow crews to get to a wildfire fast and to “stay with it until it is extinguished.”

California has millions of dead trees, which leads to an increased risk of wildfires. Its annual wildland fire budget is U$943 million.

The Government of Alberta also has cooperative agreements with the other Canadian provinces, as well as with the United States, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand. This allows Alberta’s Wildfire Management Branch to import and export resources as needed.

Physical Demands
Fighting wildland fires is a physically-demanding job, and so, physical fitness is a key consideration for employment. According to the CIFFC web site, wildland fire fighters, or WFF, “must be physically fit in order to protect their health, to work safely, to avoid injuries, and to manage work and fatigue effectively over long periods of time. The implementation of the WFX-FIT standard across Canada is a significant step forward in our efforts to look out for the safety and welfare of fire fighters.” The Canadian Physical Performance Exchange Standard was designed to ensure every WFF meets or exceeds minimum fitness levels in specific work-related requirements that are routinely necessary to be able to deal with raging fires in the wildlands.

Director Chief Ken Pimlott and Deputy Director Dave Teter receive a briefing on fire activity and containment plans for the July 2016 Sobernaes Fire in California, which burned more than 23,000 acres.

The CIFFC training standard is meant to ensure that wildfire firefighters have the basic skills to respond to forest fires anywhere in Canada. The CIFFC standard is composed of a basic-training or “boot camp” component, followed by nine additional training units that include First Aid and helicopter exit. Once those are completed, the recruit is “qualified” to fight fires. Next comes a period of mentoring and getting firefighting experience until a sufficient level of competence is reached to receive certification.

Similar to standards in the United States, the CIFFC standard is a minimum requirement, and provincial agencies that train WFF may add content specific to their regions, notes Dick T. Bon, a CIFFC training coordinator.

“For example, Alberta has a lot of gas wells, which you don’t see in a lot of in other provinces, so they do some specific training for fighting wildfire fires around gas wells,” he explains. “It’s a safety thing. You may not need that in Newfoundland, but you need it if you’re a firefighter in Alberta.”

Before any training begins, however, recruits must pass the all-important “pre-fit test,” designed to ensure applicants have the stamina to endure a job that burns 6,000 to 7,000 calories a day, according to Bon.

“That tells you it’s hard work. It’s in tough terrain, smoky conditions sometimes. All of those things stress physical fitness.”

Safety, Endurance
About 10 years ago, CIFFC reviewed its fitness standards, hiring York University kinesiologists to develop a timed capacity test, Bon tells FrontLine.

“Strength and endurance and all these kinds of things are tested – and they’re tested at a level which would be very indicative of how a day in the life a firefighter would be.”

Encumbered by a weighted belt, participants have to run through a timed circuit with four components. First, they have to carry 28.5 kg simulated pump on their backs for 160 metres, climbing up steep ramps every 20 metres. Second, participants pick up the pump and carry it by hand for 80 metres. Third, they carry 25 kg hose packs for 1 kilometre, traversing a ramp every 20 metres. Finally, participants drag a weighted sled 80 metres, simulating the experience of advancing a charged hose.

Since this new fitness test was adopted, agencies have been better at screening out those not fit enough to the job safely. Bon says that sudden cardiac deaths were “a strong statistic” before the test was implemented. “We’ve pretty much eliminated that because of the fitness requirements; if you don’t meet a certain fitness level, you don’t get employed as a firefighter.”

July 2016 – A helicopter gathers water to drop over the Soberanes Fire in California.

Structure firefighters (those who enter burning residential and commercial buildings) may seem to have the more dangerous job (including rescuing those who are trapped and/or injured, and responding to hazmat incidents), however, according to Bon, improved safety practices in general have made casualties a rarity nowadays – and when they do happen, it’s often related to a transportation accident. “The public thinks firefighters get burned. That’s not the way these fatalities happen.”

U.S. statistics indicate that wildland fire fighters account for 27% of firefighter’s work-related fatalities, even though they comprise only 5% of the career firefighter work force. This means WFF are dying at a whopping rate of 6-times higher compared to structure firefighters.
According to data from a USFS report entitled “Wildland Fire Fatalities in the United States 1990-2006”, the most frequent causes of death for wildland firefighters are not burnover (when the fire overtakes the firefighters or equipment. Aircraft accidents (23%); Vehicle accidents (23%); Heart attacks (22%); Burnover (21%); Falling snags (4%); all others, such as drowning, electrocution, training (7%).

Learning & Training
Fire safety training has three major components: fire science and behaviour; fireline safety; and the fundamentals of fire suppression. For CIFFC candidates, the basic training portion lasts about one to two weeks depending on how much content agencies add on top of the CIFFC requirements, Bon says.

After basic training, Canadian recruits must pass a national written exam and undergo a performance appraisal. “They go out and assess their use of hand tool and hose and pumping, and all those kinds of things,” Bon says. Recruits are evaluated based on established performance-based and knowledge-based objectives. “Once they’ve passed those elements, they can go and fight fires – under supervision.”

After that, the recruits gradually complete additional training units, including courses in First Aid, Transportation of Dangerous Goods, Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS), exiting a helicopter, chain saw operation and the “Incident Command System” used to manage incidents.

Next comes what is essentially an apprenticeship period where the new firefighters hone their skills and eventually demonstrate that they’re sufficiently competent to be certified, which usually happens within a year.

Once the recruit candidates pass all of those goal posts, they will be certified as a “Type 1 firefighter,” which is the highest level, and can carry out all aspects of firefighting, including initial attack, sustained attack and mop-up.

Kevin Hampson is a journalist and freelance writer based in Grande Prairie, Alberta.