You face challenging fires all the time. You’ve received training to assess different types of fires and determine the best firefighting approach. In each issue of Community Fire Protection News, we show you a fire and ask you to make the call on a number of different measures. In this issue, you can view a video of an actual wildland fire and see the resulting destruction.
Over the past several decades, there has been a steady change in the residential fire environment. We’re seeing larger homes with more open geometries. Those homes usually involve lightweight construction and more materials that result in increased fire loads. Those changes have caused a change in fire dynamics. Fire propagation is faster, resulting in a shorter time to flashover, shorter escape times, and shorter times to collapse. As a result, many fire departments are starting to change how they attack residential fires.
In this issue, you can view a video involving a residential fire.
Watch the video and reply to the questions below. We’ll include your answers in the next issue.
- Has your Fire Protection Area changed over the past 20 years resulting in an increase in the number of residential homes that you protect?
- Does your Fire Protection Area require any safety features installed during the construction of new residential homes? Examples include fire detection systems or residential sprinkler systems.
- For residential homes that require safety features installed during construction, is there any enforcement to assure such features are serviced and maintained?
- With the increase of modern structures within your area, has your overall strategy changed (offensive vs. defensive) in how you attack fires involving those structures?
- Has your department training program started teaching the SLICE-RS tactical approach to modern construction structures?
- How important is preplanning to determining the correct strategy at residential fires?
Results from Last Issue
In our last issue, you watched the wildland fire video pictured here, and we asked you some questions. Here’s a summary of responses, including responses from Chief of Operations Jeff Alter of the Seminole Tribe Fire Rescue Department, Fire Chief Dave Downey of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department, Assistant Fire Chief J. Nolan Sapp of Greater Naples Fire Rescue District, and Division Chief Mike Wajda of Orange County Fire Rescue. Here are portions of their responses:
A recent report estimated that commercial building fires in 2011 caused more than $2.5 billion of property loss, 80 deaths, and 1,100 injuries.
- Have there been any changes in strategies or tactics when responding to fires in wildland areas?
“We’ve changed our tactics in how we commit structural resources to wildland fires,” says Fire Chief Dave Downey of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department. “Many of our response areas have fire-dependent ecosystems. Every year, we respond to those same areas when they catch on fire…like rebuilding a vacant wood frame dwelling that was reduced to rubble then waiting for it to catch fire again. Defensive positions on those types of fires is the best use of available resources. That tactic reduces the risk to homes from reignition and increases the safety of our personnel.”
“Many fire departments are defending homes and structures but not committing firefighting vehicles or conducting high-risk operations in off-road areas,” says Division Chief Mike Wajda of Orange County Fire Rescue. “Rather than deploying in off-road areas, current tactics typically involve finding a firebreak, such as a road, stream, or area of cleared land, and allowing the fire to burn up to that point. Some studies show that fire is a natural, beneficial process in wild areas, so incident commanders might not select aggressive suppression activities if there are no structural risks. When lives or structures are threatened, fire departments will typically employ more aggressive firefighting tactics.”
“The change strategically was for more preplan activities to get to know the area before a wildfire, so we can have a better tactical plan on the firefighting side,” says Chief of Operations Jeff Alter of the Seminole Tribe Fire Rescue Department. “Tactically, that means having ingress to and egress from homes and structures, applying the urban interface ‘watch out’ situations, and thinning vegetation in and around homes prior to fire season.”
“We educate our people to think smarter, identify how best to approach the fire, and use water conservation practices,” says Assistant Fire Chief J. Nolan Sapp of Greater Naples Fire Rescue District. “That means fight where it makes sense — four-foot flames not forty-foot flames.”
- What, if any, proactive activities should firefighters be conducting that could reduce the fire risk within such areas?
“One of the most effective ways to reduce the risk of damage to homes or property from a wildfire is to prevent an ignition in the first place by educating homeowners and land managers in fire-adapted communities,” says Chief of Operations Jeff Alter of the Seminole Tribe Fire Rescue Department.
“Fire Departments can advocate for and facilitate programs such as ‘FireWise’ or ‘Ready, Set, Go!’ that teach property owners about wildfire risk, mitigation strategies, and preparedness in the event of a wildfire,” says Division Chief Mike Wajda of Orange County Fire Rescue. “A huge factor in protecting properties from wildfire is removing fuels such as trash, yard waste, and vegetation from close proximity to a structure. Structures that have flammable materials and vegetation in close proximity are at much higher fire exposure risk and require far more firefighting resources to protect.”
“One great activity is conducting prescribed burns with our many wildland partners,” says Fire Chief Dave Downey of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department. “This includes our parks department's natural area management team, state forestry, and the National Park Service. Proactive activities should also include tracking fuel loading in target areas. Removal of fuels is not a task we can accomplish, because we’re not the property owners. There is also little code compliance in dealing with overgrown lots. It’s better to preplan a response in the event of a fire than hope that structures will be able to withstand the impacts from a wildland fire. We’re fortunate that our building codes, which are meant to withstand catastrophic wind speeds, also assist in reducing the damage from wildland fire.”
- Should you commit firefighters and/or other resources to protect isolated structures that may be located within the path of the fire?
“Yes, but only if we can do so in accordance with the risk/benefit analysis,” says Assistant Fire Chief J. Nolan Sapp of Greater Naples Fire Rescue District. “Risk a lot to save a lot (lives), risk nothing to save nothing. We don’t trade lives for vegetation only. But having said that, each scenario is different and will be triaged at the time of the incident.”
“Yes and no,” says Fire Chief Dave Downey of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department. “There are many questions involved in making the decision: Do I have an alternative water supply on-site? Do I have enough resources on-scene? Is there a defendable space around the structure? In the event that I don’t have a defendable space, do I have a dozer on-scene that can clear out a line prior to the arrival of the fire? Do I have an unobstructed egress in case the fire begins to overtake my position? If the answer is ‘no’ to those questions, then it would be better to allow the fire to burn past the house.”
“Structure protection is inherently dangerous because it involves indirect firefighting,” says Chief of Operations Jeff Alter of the Seminole Tribe Fire Rescue Department. “We normally don’t commit to protect a structure unless a safety zone for firefighters and equipment has been identified at the structure during size-up and triage.”
- Does your area mandate and enforce safe clearances around structures located within these areas?
“No, but we always encourage any safety enhancement, and we offer assistance with proper information for property protection,” says Assistant Fire Chief J. Nolan Sapp of Greater Naples Fire Rescue District.
“As a tribal government, we build to federal and state building codes,” says Chief of Operations Jeff Alter of the Seminole Tribe Fire Rescue Department. “But it’s the homeowner’s responsibility to ensure that his or her property is protected. We do clear fire breaks in and around homes and tribal infrastructure. The education of communities within high-to-moderate wildfire ecosystems are made aware of the risks and given options and the knowledge to mitigate risks by numerous wildland-urban interface programs (FireWise, for example), thus lessening home and property damages.”
- With the increase in residential homes within such areas, does your overall strategy change (offensive vs. defensive) if you discover that occupants refuse to leave their homes?
“Incident commanders deploy the greatest resources to protect lives,” says Division Chief Mike Wajda of Orange County Fire Rescue. “If there are known risks to people, commanders will generally deploy greater resources and employ more aggressive strategies. However, choosing not to follow an evacuation is a very dangerous decision. It can place homes at greater risk because an incident commander may have to divert resources from firefighting responsibilities to rescue occupants in the danger area. This saps units and attention away from controlling the fire.”
“No, there is no change in our strategy of attack,” says Fire Chief Dave Downey of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department. “If a unit is unable to contain the fire with their on-board water or it’s beyond the reach of their attack line, then they need to prepare for a defensive operation. A defensive strategy where homes are threatened will have our apparatus placed so as to protect the homes. This requires a considerable amount of resources. And because of the number and proximity of wildland areas, evacuation of occupants impedes apparatus from being able to efficiently negotiate into communities to properly establish structure protection. In our area, evacuation of occupants falls under the direction of the police.”
“We attempt to educate prior to the event or season,” says Assistant Fire Chief J. Nolan Sapp of Greater Naples Fire Rescue District. “On-scene, we quickly attempt to get residents to understand the potential life hazard.”
- How important is preplanning in determining the correct game plan at wildland-urban interface fires?
“Preplanning is critical in interface areas,” says Division Chief Mike Wajda of Orange County Fire Rescue. “Crews need to know areas of historic wildfire activity, access points, life and structural risks, water supplies, and potential fire breaks within their area of responsibility.”
“It’s critical,” says Fire Chief Dave Downey of Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Department. “Proper preplanning allows crews to assess ingress and egress routes to threatened areas. It also allows crews to assess fuel load and types of fuels found in wildland areas. Wildland fires require crews to understand expected fire behavior versus current fire behavior. A change in weather may elevate a routine incident to a multiple-alarm response.”
“Extremely,” says Assistant Fire Chief J. Nolan Sapp of Greater Naples Fire Rescue District. “We encourage crews to preplan their response zones and predetermine hazards and nondefendable space. They should establish safe zones; identify life hazards to both people and animals, including exotics in our area; and identify people with special needs, such as wheelchair-bound or nonambulatory citizens.”
“There are numerous opportunities available for planners, developers, and others to help WUI communities adapt to wildfire,” says Chief of Operations Jeff Alter of the Seminole Tribe Fire Rescue Department. “Education, planning, and mitigation activities can help limit the number of ignitions, reduce flammable vegetation, create FireWise homes, and thereby establish fire-adapted communities. The other productive method is to go out and speak with all homeowners to remind them of the dangers they face living in the wildland-urban interface.”