A Personal Encounter
by John Kiess
During my twelve years as a professional wildland firefighter, events that have stuck with me are the passing away of fellow firefighters, either on the job or from health conditions as a result of the work we do. Firefighting is an inherently dangerous career field. With fire seasons being longer and fire behavior seeming to get worse with each year, firefighters are asked to work longer hours in more dangerous, unfavorable conditions. But wildland firefighters always rise to the task. When I started this job, I never gave the safety concerns a second thought. But over the years my own personal views have changed. My brother also works in this field. More now than ever, I wonder about his safety too. I know he is well trained and has great leaders, but the possibility is scary.
What stands out for me as a wildland firefighter are the men and women I work with on a regular basis. Wildland firefighters are humble, hard workers who perform the job because they love it. They don’t look for accolades or awards for this work, and most people have little idea what they do. But these hard working people are ready to help in every way possible, and will do their best to accomplish whatever task is given to them.
The Thomas Fire in 2017, Los Padres National Forest
Photo by John Kiess
The work I perform is hard and rugged, and our fire stations are generally far out in the woods. Firefighters hike tools and fire hose up mountains and sleep on the ground at night, just to wake up to do it again the next day. We are away from home most of the period between May and November. We work in the peak temperatures of summer all over the western United States.
With the changing climate during my career, many areas have experienced drought, and fire seasons have extended in length. This has made many of our traditional tactics and strategies no longer viable. More and more forest areas have been impacted by drought, which has killed millions of trees and made the rest less resistant to invasive species. Fire planners are impacted because these changes increase fire behavior and reduce opportunities to catch the fire early. By “fire behavior” I mean the intensity of the fire, the height of the flames, and its movement. This is all important information that a crew needs to be aware of.
During large fires there are teams of firefighters (incident management teams) that determine plans and tactics for all the fire personnel. These are similar to teams that manage other complex events, such as hurricanes, tornados, and floods. They gather information from the personnel on the ground, and make decisions (in coordination with cooperating agencies) based on the public interests to be protected (e.g. homes, cultural areas, highways, and utilities). For example, the teams need to consider the lack of moisture in drought areas, which can increase fire spread and intensity.
When getting ready to go out to fires, I usually have a kind of off-and-on switch. I tell my wife I’ll see her in two weeks, kiss her, and pat my dog on the head. After that I switch into work mode, making sure the firefighters on the engine are ready and have the necessary supplies and equipment to be successful. We train extensively over the summer, so the nerves that normally go with stressful situations are replaced with a calm, collective, and pre-planning mentality.
When going into an area where we will be working, I’m gathering information constantly. This means getting maps, finding out what the fire is doing, assessing equipment needs, talking to the public about what they’ve seen, finding water sources for the fire engine, looking at the terrain and the challenges it may present. It is massive intel gathering before we even put boots on the ground and get an assignment. This all can be affected by the fire; fires that are moving quickly and alter suddenly make this process harder. During those times we will have to work with the fragmented information at hand.
Usually we approach a fire listening to numerous radios and trying to gather information on where the fire is, its size, what radio channels we will be using, and the values at risk (homes, infrastructure, and cultural values). We are trying to do this over the sound of sirens and navigating through traffic.
Most of the time there is a column of smoke, which is an indicator of how the fire is developing. Large columns with varying colors, such as dark smoke with a white top, is a common indicator of a rapidly moving fire.
When we arrive, and depending on the location, we will determine a tactic, brief our firefighters, and go to work. Most of the time this will be on the side of a roadway or in a neighborhood. It is usually chaotic as bystanders or residents leave the area.
On a fire engine our goal is to put in a hose lay, which means carrying 100-foot lengths of fire hose along the edge of the fire, spraying water as we go. Unlike municipal firefighters, we carry this hose in prebuilt backpacks that unfold as we hike up hills. In a coordinated effort, all firefighters on the module lay out the hose in 100-foot sections and then fill it with water. We progress up the hill one section at a time. There are twenty hose packs on our fire engine, so our firefighters will hike up and down the edge of the fire grabbing hose from the fire engine to keep progressing.
This is physically exhausting and only made harder by the smoke and the extreme temperatures of summer. The smoke makes eyes water, noses run, and it is occasionally hard to breathe. The environment is very loud, with (usually) helicopters or planes flying close to the ground, noisy fire engine pumps, and personnel running chainsaws.
Wildland firefighters respond to fires regardless of any factor. We miss holidays, birthdays, weddings, school events, and many other thing due to the nature of our career. We put personal time on hold for a bit to complete the job, and then return back to home life where we left off.
John Kiess, Fire Engine Operator, U.S Forest Service, Sequoia NF Kern River Ranger District, Lake Isabella Fire Station Engine 47