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Texas Learns About Wildland Fire’s Year-Round Challenges

There’s an old joke that Alaska, the largest state in the United States, was going to divide into three equal parts, thus making Texas the fourth largest state. Alaskans may be making a point in this example, but no one can argue that Texas is a large and diverse landscape, ripe for disasters.

Those with responsibilities in the wildland-urban interface are used to the seasonal nature of the threat.

Last year, Texas learned that wildland fire can have a year-round nature. We learned over and over about problems associated with extended attack. We learned that vegetation can be flammable and small, open spaces pose the same threat as large wildland plots.

We learned defensive operations must be employed before we can easily deploy an offensive attack. Last April, we graduated from grass fires and 
went headlong into brush fires.

We also found that communities want instant information about a wildland fire. Social media and reverse 911 are great avenues for funneling instant updates on fires, but the information flow must be managed by competent public-information officers and incident commanders.

Lessons from a Year-Round WUI Fire Season

Lessons learned from a year of wildland firefighting must be heeded and not forgotten because firefighters take the brunt of the fury. Two basic considerations must be explored.

Personal Protective Equipment & Clothing – Wildland PPE must be issued to and worn by all members. Quality boots that have strong ankle support and an aggressive tread pattern are paramount. Station boots are fine for station work, but not on a side hill when building a progressive hose lay.

Fire shelters must be on the person, not in the truck.

Command officers, set the tone on your PPE. If you don’t wear the proper PPE, stay at your desk, please.

Rehab During the Fire – Equally important is the formal rotation of rehab during a fire. Don’t forget the rehab function just because your engine crews are in wildland PPE during a WUI incident.

The proper care and watering of firefighters during a WUI event is critical. The tempo and the brutal Texas heat of these incidents will challenge your highest trained physical specimens.

WUI Dangers & Priorities

We understand convection, conduction and radiation are the three major sources of heat transfer, and Texas firefighters have learned what many far westerners already knew about the evil and illusive fire ember. Many of our company officers were shocked to find them sneak into areas too small for the smallest insect to penetrate.

Wood fences and wooden decks cause a wick effect. Truck and ladder companies learned to remove both to stop the fire’s progression.

Working with aerial resources is also new to many Texans in large metropolitan areas.

Evacuations often take priority over offensive or defensive actions. That means that often, even with law-enforcement support, precious fire resources may be employed to critical evacuation functions and may never have the opportunity to stop or slow the fire’s progression.

How Texas Is Responding

The State of Texas has instituted the Texas Interagency Fire and Mutual Aid System (TIFMAS), which is being built now throughout the state. Under close supervision of the Governor’s Department of Emergency Management, with mentoring from the Texas Forest Service (TFS) and the Texas Fire Chief’s Association, TIFMAS is moving forward at a fast pace.

As a result of the 2009 fire season, the legislation provided grants available through the TFS for type 3 and type 6 engines to be placed in local fire stations in key locations to provide wildland and WUI resources statewide. This effort supplement the engines, ambulances and other resources poised to support the all-risk nature of Texas disasters.

TIFMAS, TFS and local fire agencies are training scores of firefighters in the National Wildland Coordination Group Wildland Firefighter (S-130), Fire Behavior (S-190) and Human Factors (L-180) courses statewide. For supervisory training, there is Engine Boss (G-G231) and Strike Team Leader Engine (G-330) courses. This will support the interagency part of the complex and problematic year-round WUI and large wildland fires that seem to have been taking aim at the Lone Star State recently.

Whether Texas remains the largest state in the United States, it seems that the year-round fire season may be here to stay. Or at least will be a frequent visitor.

James Linardos is the fire chief for Lake Travis (Tex.) Fire Rescue.

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