It's only June and 2014 is already a record fire year out west. We asked a wildfire fighter how fires are fought, what causes them and what you can do if you find yourself in their path.
IndefinitelyWild: Who are you and what do you know about fighting fires?
Jake Novitsky: I graduated from Penn State University with a Bachelor's in Forestry and an Associate's in Wildlife. I now work for the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry as a Forest Technician.
I got into fire fighting because I think learning about fire behavior and how fire is used to help regenerate forest is interesting. Also, I see it as another way I can use my knowledge and skills to help the public.
I fight fires not only in Pennsylvania, but all over the country. I've done that in Idaho, Montana and Colorado, to name a few places.
IW: How do most wildfires get started?
JN: They can be caused by natural occurrences such as lightning or by someone being irresponsible, whether that be leaving a fire unattended or by arson. Most wildfires in Pennsylvania are caused by people burning brush. Out of state fires that I've fought were caused by lightning strikes. I can't put a definitive split on causation being natural or manmade though.
IW: What steps can people take to prevent forest fires?
JN: People can educate themselves on fire and the ways they can be started. The public can obey current laws and regulations on burn bans. If you have a campfire or burn barrels, make sure you don't leave them unattended. Make sure to keep water, a shovel or a rake handy as well.
Campfires should be within fire rings and have all flammable materials moved away from them. This includes both tents and stuff like leaves, clear at least a 10-foot ring around the fire.
Make sure fires are totally out before leaving them. The best way to extinguish a fire is with water, but if none is available, you need to mix the fire and embers with dirt or sand until it is completely out and cool to the touch. Treat fire with respect, no matter how big or small lit is, it can turn bad in seconds.
IW: What mistakes do people make around fires that can prove deadly?
JN: The biggest mistake is not providing for safety first — methods to extinguish the fire — and just being careless. People don't think their fire could be the one that puts lives in harm's way.
IW: How are wildfires fought?
JN: Fires will be sized up, meaning we will try and see the location of the fire and the size of it. Then, we see what the weather conditions are, look for the radio frequencies in the area, the best way to access the fire, any special hazards or concerns and if any additional resources are needed. You then establish an anchor point, somewhere you can safely tie into where you can control the fire and won't get burned over.
Then, you start fighting the fire on its flanks by digging direct or indirect control lines to help contain it. As you dig these lines, you always have to keep an escape route in mind, a safety zone where you can go and be safe from the fire. You may have many escape routes and safety zones, but everyone always needs to know the quickest way out and make sure it's well marked and cleared.
An indirect line is away from the fire. Some advantages of this tactic are that you won't be in direct heat and smoke, you can use natural barriers to help contain the fire and you can also construct these lines in lighter fuel areas (where there's less stuff to burn). Disadvantages are that more area will be burned, lines that are being put in may not end up being used and firing off these lines may leave unburned islands of fuel.
A direct line is when you are digging right next to the fire. The advantages are that this minimizes the area being burnt and it's a safe place to work since you are usually able to easily escape into already burned areas. Disadvantages are that the firefighters are exposed to smoke, heat and flames.
Control lines can be very long and you may not be able to use natural barriers. When digging line, you have to keep in mind all potential hazards, where everyone is and what the fire is doing, at all times. Your line must be down to bare mineral soil and free of roots so the fire doesn't burn underneath the ground. Your line must be at least four times the flame length so the fire can't blow across your line into the unburned fuel on the other side.
The basic idea is to keep the fire from spreading. Planes and helicopters use water and fire retarded to help slow down, put out and try to contain the fire as well. Using water or retardant drops can slow the head of the fire down and get to place where it's too dangerous to work on the ground. Any fire with a flame length over about four feet tall is extremely dangerous.
IW: What does it mean when a fire is XX% contained?
JN: If you hear that a fire is 10% contained, that means that 10% of the fire won't be able to jump lines or make another run. There may still be fires in that area, but they are under control.
IW: At what point does a fire become too large to fight?
JN: We have a Fire Behavior Hauling chart that is based on flame length and what tactics we can then use that work best. If flame length is less than four feet high, it can be attacked at the head and flanks using hand tools and that line should hold. Flame lengths of four to eight feet are too intense for direct attack using hand tools; bulldozer, tractors, engines and retardant drops work best. Get up to eight to eleven feed and serious problems can occur, any tactical operation will probably fail at the head of the fire. If the flame length is over 11 feet, then crowning, spotting and major fire activity are probably. Any efforts to control a the head of the fire at that point or ineffective.
Many factors contribute to flame length, including temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, droughts, fuel types, fuel loads, etc.
IW: Is California's unique vulnerability to fires due to building where we shouldn't?
JN: More and more people moving into fire-prone areas is making homes more fire prone. But, California's continuous drought and currently high fuel loads are also major factors.
IW: What steps can a homeowner take if a wildfire is bearing down on them?
JN: A homeowner should leave the area at once if told to evacuate. Your possessions are not worth your life.
There are, however, precautions you can take before a fire hits. Be sure to follow federal and state laws about fire prevention. Keeping up to code on these things is the best way to increase your home's chance of survival. Some codes involve keeping rain gutters free of debris, shrubs away from houses and grass low.
As far as using hoses and sprinklers on the property and on top of roofs, this does help prevent the home from burning. We also have a fabric we call "fire wrap" for structure protection on homes and historical landmarks. We basically wrap the structure with a material that's much like what we use in our fire shelters and this helps keep embers and radiant heat off the structure.
IW: Are wildfires becoming more prevalent due to climate change?
JN: The warming trend gives the possibility for more fires and larger ones due to drier conditions.
IW: What should you do if you encounter a wildfire while in the outdoors?
JN: Recreating in fire prone areas during fire season is dangerous. If possible, go another time or find out what the fire danger is from the district or forest you're recreating in. If you do decide to go during a fire prone time, make sure you have multiple ways to get in and out of where you're at. Good situational awareness is key, look for fire signs such as seeing, smelling or hearing smoke or fire.
If you do get yourself into a situation where you are outdoors and run into a wildfire, notify 911 ASAP. If you can't escape the fire, try to find the best place to increase your chances of survival. We call this our "safety zone," places such as bodies of water; wetlands or large areas of solid rock are best. When we make our safety zones, the distance between the fire and fire fighter must be at least four times the flame length. So, if you have a fifty-foot flame, you must be at least 200 feet away and have an area of three acres to stand the best possible chance of survival. Imagine a football field as being one acre.
Try to remove synthetic clothing, as it will melt. Wool is a better choice due to the fact that it doesn't melt and helps insulate you from heat.
When you come out of your safety zone after the fire has passed, remember that there are still plenty of hazards — unburned fuels, snags, flame and hot debris. As you make your way out, make sure to stay in the already burned areas, we call this the "black." If you start waking back into the unburned, winds can change and you could find yourself exposed to the fire again. Call for help, notify them what happened and tell them where you are.
IW: What steps can a homeowner take to make their home fireproof?
JN: Keep the chimney clean and install a spark-arresting screen on top of it. Keep trees at least 10 feet from your chimney. Keep woodpiles and fuel tanks 25 feet or more away from your home. Don't keep wood underneath your deck or porch. Prune dead branches on trees. Make sure your lawn is maintained and cut in a zone thirty feet around your house. Never lay wood chips next to your home. Have your driveway wide enough to allow emergency vehicles access. Try to avoid burning and, if you have to do it, make sure you do it well away from any structures or fire hazards. Keep fire tools such as rakes and shovels handy. Keep at least a 30-foot garden hose handy. Install cement shingles to eliminate the possibility of embers lighting your roof on fire. Keep up with current laws, regulations and building codes. All of these things together reduce the risk of your home being fire prone.
Photos: Getty Images
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.