Firefighting dangers: Felling trees

Felling trees is a dangerous task to begin with, but that task is even more dangerous when the tree is on fire. In both cases there's a danger of limbs falling while you are cutting, the tree not falling the way you intended either because of hidden decay or other structural problems with the tree, and the phenomenon of 'barber chair', where the tree splits and kicks back at the sawyer, which can be fatal. 

Why do firefighters cut down trees that are burning? Usually it is because the tree threatens to breach the fireline, or because it is close to where fire crews are working. The challenge of cutting down a burning tree is of course standing that close to flames, but there is also the risk of the gas in the chain saw catching on fire. Watch this video to get a feel for the danger and risks involved.

Firefighting dangers: Mopping up

"Mopping up" after a wildland fire is a tedious, dirty, and difficult, but necessary, job.

Once the fire is contained within a fireline, only part of the work is done. To prevent the fire from restarting later, crews now need to comb the burned area in search of hotspots--burning stumps, logs and other debris that could threaten containment. Every single one.

One would think the danger is over now. But that's where the danger lies: believing the danger is over.

Exhaustion plays a role. The firefighter may have spent 16 hours battling the fire, and after a short break, it's time to go back to work. With the rush of adrenaline gone, it's easy to fall into the belief that you can let your guard down. But you can't. Falling trees have been known to kill people during the mop up stage. You also have to watch out for burning stumps, with hotbeds of coals that are hidden by ashes. If you step into one, you could end up with serious burns.  Rocks are loosened when there is no vegetation to hold them in place, and they can tumble at any time.

And then there is the risk that the fire restarts. In a heartbeat you go from mopping up to active fire suppression. 

Here's a video to give you an idea of what mop up entails. This lucky crew was able to have water available. Quite often this is not the case. When there is no water, you are stuck with using dirt to smother the flames, removing oxygen, or by chopping the burning roots or logs apart so they cool down.

Firefighting dangers: Backfiring

Backfiring the 1977 Hog Fong Fire

Using fire to fight fire has long been a technique to control a raging wildfire, and they can be successful.

However, these are also quite dangerous and can sometimes make the original fire worse. 

The main danger: an unexpected change in wind direction can trap firefighters between the fire they are battling and the one they are setting.

For more on this technique and the use of prescribed fire, check out this article.

Firefighting dangers: Slurry

Slurry (fire retardant) is often used to battle wildfires. While slurry can be useful in helping to control a fire, it will not put the fire out. Instead, it cools and slows the fire so that ground crews can build a fireline. 

Back when I fought fire, I remember talk about men putting themselves in situations where they could be hit by slurry for bragging rights about being on the hottest part of the fire. 

I always knew this was crazy, if not deadly. 

Watch this video, and you will know what I mean.


Filming for PBS show Arizona Illustrated

What a thrill to land an interview on my local PBS station! I will be talking about my firefighting career and visiting the scene of my second wildfire and Florida (Flor-ee-da) Ranger Station, where I spent three summers on a fire suppression crew.

Here are some photos from filming on location.