Wildland firefighters have always carried far less gear than those who work for city fire departments. There are at least two reasons why. First, wildland fires are usually in remote locations, requiring either long hikes, helicopter transport, or parachuting in. All of these methods require that weight and gear are kept at a minimum. Second, unlike a structure fire which might take hours to put out, forest fires can takes weeks, if not months, to be considered truly “out.” Carrying enough supplies for that long of a period is impossible.
My first fire season in 1976, protective gear consisted of only a shirt made of fire resistant Nomex fabric, goggles to protect our eyes from debris, a metal hard hat (even though lightweight fiberglass was available, it wasn’t melt-proof), leather gloves, and leather work boots with a minimum 8” top and no steel toes. Steel-toes were not allowed because if you stepped into a bed of hot coals, the steel would transmit the searing heat to your feet, and would continue to do so even after you moved, resulting in serious burns.
|Nomex fire shirt|
It wasn’t until 1977 that wearing both Nomex pants and shirts became mandatory even when not working on a fire. No one on my crew, including me, wanted to wear Nomex clothes because they didn’t breathe well in the summer heat, but we had no choice. Also introduced that summer, was the first fire shelter, which we also protested. Not only did we not want the extra weight, but we didn’t believe they would work.
The first fire shelter, still in use today, resembled an aluminum foil pup tent. The idea of the shelter was to save our skins should we be entrapped by flames. However, the shelters were by no means failsafe. In light fuels, such as a grass fire, one might survive with minor burns on elbows and feet, but in heavy fuels, such as thick brush or timber, that would be the least of your injuries. In cases such as these, fire burns up all of the oxygen, suffocating you, or your lungs burn from the superheated air. Not a pleasant way to die. Here's a video of fire shelter deployments:
Because of the 2013 tragedy of the Granite Mountain 19 Hot Shots, where 19 men all died while in their shelters, new fire shelters are now under development. However, the prototypes are a problem. For shelters to be more effective, they would weigh far more than anyone would want to, or could, carry. Most firefighters interviewed about whether or not they would carry these new shelters say they would not, and would prefer to take their chances with the older version.
Firefighting hand tools used then remain the same ones used today: The Pulaski, shovel, McLeod, and backpack pump.
|Firefighter building fireline with a Pulaski|
The Pulaski, invented by the early forest ranger, Ed Pulaski, is a combination hoe and axe. Weighing in at about 8 lbs, this tool is often the preferred fireline building tool because of its multi-functionality.
A firefighter’s shovel is not an everyday garden shovel. This version has a shorter handle to make it just as useful to scrap the ground to remove flammables as it is to shovel dirt. To further set it apart from a garden shovel, the lip is sharp in order to cut small roots when clearing line.
A McLeod is a heavy-duty rake with a broad hoe opposite the tines. This tool is best for scraping pine needles and the duff underneath, limiting its usefulness.
The backpack pump (aka bladder bag, piss-pump) is handy for putting out hotspots, but a royal pain in the rear to carry, especially in steep terrain because the water inside wants to follow gravity, pulling you downhill, making walking on steep terrain a challenge.
While not a hand tool, I’m often asked about slurry, also known as fire retardant. Slurry is basically a mixture of water and fertilizer used to aid in fire suppression. What many people don’t understand is that slurry does NOT put out a fire. Its main purpose is to dampen flames in order for fire crews to be able to move in closer and build line. Without hand crews ready to jump in, the water evaporates quickly, and the fire moves on to new fuel. The purpose of the fertilizer is solely to aid in the regeneration of new growth after the fire is out.