We never really know what to expect when we roll up to a fire, but over the years I’ve learned that reality will almost always be less exciting than my imagination. I’ve learned that taking the time to create a good safe plan is critical. A hasty plan will often fail, leading to wasted effort and possibly injuries or fatalities. Making measured decisions and taking calculated risks are how we define our tactics and ensure that everyone leaves the fire line safely. Remembering basic firefighting strategy can keep you safe when your adrenaline pushes you to beeline to the hottest part of the fire and kick some ass.
“Keep one foot in the black.”
Avoid “unburned fuel between you and the fire.”
Be cognizant of and cautious of “light, flashy fuels” like grass.
Yesterday, I was leading my squad in to the West Antelope fire thinking about those rules. My assignment, as I understood it, was to park as close to the fire as possible and hike a straight line to the fire’s edge, roughly a thousand feet in elevation up. The fuels were dry grass which burns much faster than we could run, especially upslope with some wind behind it. A straight line would have taken us through a sea of continuous unburned grass. I couldn’t even see the fire from where we parked, due to terrain obstruction. I had seen the fire from a few miles away and during the drive in, until the hills got in the way, and fire activity seemed minimal. Planes were dumping retardant along the fire perimeter and several helicopters were working hot spots with bucket drops. Still, I walked the squad along a road down low and then up to the top through the black. It probably took us ten minutes longer to get there but there wasn’t much work to do anyway. We secured a section of fire line that was hung up in broken rock along the ridge, double checked our work, and monitored it for the rest of the shift.
To be clear, I’m not sure if I was expected to walk through the green or not, because I didn’t ask anyone. I just stuck with the basics and did what I knew was safe. Having seen the fire, I would have felt comfortable walking through the unburned grass, and that’s the route we would have taken today if we’d gone back up. I have to wonder if I just misunderstood the route I was asked to take. I also wonder how many times people have incorrectly followed orders blindly, putting themselves in an unsafe position.
In wildland firefighting, if you have questions or need clarification, ask. If you see an unsafe act or conditions that could hurt or kill someone, say something. Ultimately, don’t do anything stupidly unsafe, even if it’s a direct order. (Be prepared to explain why you are turning down the assignment and offer alternative options, but don’t rush headlong into something foolish just because you’re told to.)
Be careful not to cross the very thin line between badass and dumbass.
That is all.