Nearly half a million acres of forest have burned in the United States so far this year. “Only you can prevent forest fires,” says Smokey the Bear. But leave fighting the fires to professionals.
Smokey’s website explains the many types of firefighters and the different means they use to control the infernos.
The first person to take action are the fire managers. Their job is to determine if action is needed to control a blaze. Some natural fires are good for the health of the forests and forest managers may leave some wildfires alone and let them burn up the dead wood and other detritus littering the forests. If the fire is deemed to be a risk to humans, sensitive wildlife habitat or water quality, the fire manager may call in a variety of firefighters.
The firefighting infantry, these teams of 20 work on the ground to dig firelines. Firelines are strips of land cleared of combustible materials that serve to fence in the inferno. Crews may use Pulaskis, a straight-handled tool with a single-bit axe blade on one side and a narrow adze-like trenching blade on the other. When shovels and Pulaskis aren’t enough, bulldozers and tractors can build a firebreak faster, but are limited by road access and rough terrain.
The elite of the handcrews can become hotshots. They are called in to suppress big fires in high risk areas. If a fire overtakes the crew, they use portable fire shelters that reflect radiant heat and provide breathable air.
Like a firefighting air cavalry, helitack crews can reach remote areas using helicopters. They often are the first boots on the ground after rappelling down from their choppers. Other helicopters use “bambi buckets,” collapsible buckers that scoop up hundreds of gallons of water from nearby bodies of water and dump it on wildfires.
Smokejumpers are airborne fight fighters called in to fight a newly ignited wildfire in remote areas. They often have to parachute through the smoke to reach the hotspot. Once they are on the ground, cargoes of firefighting supplies, food and water are air-dropped to them.
Airplanes drop thousands of gallons of water or chemical flame retardant ahead of an advancing wildfire to slow the blaze.
What would a firefighting team be with out fire engines? Engine crews use hundreds of feet of hose to deliver water from their trucks to the site of a wildfire.
“The line between disorder and order lies in logistics,” said Sun Tzu in the Art of War. Incident management teams develop and implement fire suppression strategies and make sure food, water, equipment, transportation and other necessities get to the firefighters.
A Sikorsky S-64 Aircrane firefighting helicopter drops water on a hotspot burning close to homes near Horsetooth Reservoir on June 11, 2012, near Laporte, Colo. The High Park Fire in Larimer County has burned almost 37,000 acres and damaged or destroyed more than 100 structures. The fire, which is burning in the mountains about 15 miles west of Fort Collins, Colo., is now 10 percent contained. (Photo by Marc Piscotty/Getty Images)