18 July 2012

On The Line

I have spent most of my summer to this point, out in the forest fighting wild land fires. Fighting wildfires is a big production. There are many aspects to fighting a wildfire. The casual observer may be quite surprised. The everyday structure firefighter may also be quite surprised. 

 I am often asked why I go to Southern Utah, Wyoming or Georgia when there are fires right here in the Salt Lake Valley. The best answer would be to compare the fire to a puzzle. Certain pieces are needed to fight each fire, and the piece that I fulfill may already be in place on a fire in the Salt Lake area, but not filled on another fire.
Photo by Valerie Blair

When fires start and teams are assembled to fight the fire, they simply start making requests for the resources they need. Whatever resources are available, based on what is needed, get called to the fire. As other fires start, other resources are assigned to handle them. So, Salt Lake resources could be on their way to a fire in Oregon when a fire in Salt Lake starts up. The Salt Lake area fire would then call in resources from other areas to effectively fight the fire. 

 One of the “pieces” I am called on to fill most often is that of Line Medic. The duties of a Line Medic on a wildfire are to be on the fire line with the hotshot crews, hand crews, engine companies, or whatever other resource may be fighting the fire; and be available and ready to provide any needed emergency medical care to the firefighters fighting the fire. Our packs are weighed down with all the advanced life support gear typical of any paramedic unit, complete with IV kits, needles, emergency medications, intubation equipment, AED’s, etc.

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A line medic also provides non-emergency and preventive care: blister treatments, muscle aches, minor cuts and scrapes, and illness prevention. We carry cough drops, blister bandages, second skin, and ice packs. The line medic hikes the line right with the crews, even jumping in to dig line or mop up as needed. On my last fire in Wyoming, I came across a 1/2 acre spot fire and extinguished it single handedly. Any number of things can and do happen. These firefighters are working so hard–sometimes moving as fast as they can to beat the fire to a location to save property, lives, and infrastructure–that they sometimes get injured. This is why line medics and EMT’s are there on the fire line. 

 Each fire is a unique experience. The entire purpose behind Unified Fire Authority (UFA) sending us out as single resource firefighters is for us to gain experience that will help us become better assets to our home department, especially in the urban interface fires that are becoming more common. The training obtained through real incidents is extremely valuable. On top of all that, it can be fun. Most structure firefighters would not consider a wild land incident fun. Wildfires entail long hours, hard work, and different tactics. Typically, structure firefighters are not adequately trained to fight wild land fires.

This is another reason UFA focuses on intense cross-training of all personnel. The urban-interface threat within UFA’s response areas is huge, and growing each year as more houses are built higher on the mountain benches. Many of UFA’s firefighters participate in the single resource program in various roles. Most are line medics, some are Engine Bosses, Task Force Leaders, Division Supervisors, Medic Unit Leaders, and so on. UFA also has a seasonal Type 2 Initial Attack hand crew that keep very busy throughout the season. 

 Water can be a scarce resource in fighting wildfires. Firefighters will typically clear all vegetation from the fires path to extinguish a fire. Helicopters and airplanes assist the firefighters with water drops and retardant drops to slow fire spread, but ultimately the firefighters on the ground have to get in there and remove the fuel from the path of the fire. Everyone has heard the term: “Fight fire with fire!” Wildland firefighter literally use fire to fight the fire. Burning the fuel in a controlled fashion ahead of the fire front is becoming a common and often used technique. It is very effective in stopping fire spread. 

 I have been lucky to have some fun and challenging assignments over the years. On a fire in early June of this year, I was flown into the fire by helicopter and left out in “Spike Camp” for six or seven days. Spike camp is when fire crews set up camp very near to the fire line. It reduces the amount of time needed for fire crews to travel to and from the fire, allowing them to spend more time in actual firefighting tactics. Many times, it is also a much safer option, since traveling to and from fires is one of the number one “killers” of firefighters nationwide. As the line medic on this fire, I stayed in the spike camp and provided whatever medical needs arose from the crews. I hiked to the line with them each day, and made sure their medical needs were handled. Luckily, no major medical needs arose. This particular spike camp also happened to be near a beautiful high mountain lake. The scenery was breathtaking. It was a shame that a fishing pole was not a part of our gear. On an assignment last year in Florida the number one hazard was not fire, but alligators. Some assignments take firefighters to areas with biting flies, poison snakes, steep terrain, hot and humid climates, and so on. I have seen pine trees literally explode from the flame front and heat. 

Photo by Valerie Blair
 These single resource assignments also give me a humbling respect for fire. It can be so destructive. I have driven through mountain neighborhoods that had nothing but ash piles where homes once stood. Large expanses of green pines and forest have been reduced to blackened hillsides. Livestock, wildlife, and even people have been caught by advancing fire fronts. These types of experiences provide more direct motivation to gain the experience and training needed to do my part to help mitigate these incidents in future events. As UFA firefighters continue to gain experience in other parts of the country, we will be better prepared to handle the increasing number of fires that are occurring locally. In the meantime, grab your pulaski and meet me on the line. 

*The first photo and last photo were taken by my friend Valerie Blair, a fellow line EMT from the Fontenelle Fire in Big Piney Wyoming.


Anonymous said...

I'm so glad I pursued a career in electrical. That all sounded so miserable. -Danny Simons

Amy said...

Chad, you are my hero! My great uncle died fighting a forest fire in WY, and as I read this I wondered if he would have made it, had he had someone like you in his team. I found this post so interesting! Thanks for sharing it!

Shelly and Sean said...

I have always wondered how you balanced UFA and wildland. You're so cool!

Natalie said...

I would have loved that job - exercise, scenery, action, and great stories!

Jolene_Gary said...

Wow, I was one of those people asking why you didn't stay in Utah, now I know. Thanks for all you do. Very interesting post.:)

Jolene_Gary said...

Wow, I was one of those people asking why you didn't stay in Utah, now I know. Thanks for all you do. Very interesting post.:)

Jolene_Gary said...

Wow, I was one of those people asking why you didn't stay in Utah, now I know. Thanks for all you do. Very interesting post.:)

Jolene_Gary said...

Wow, I was one of those people asking why you didn't stay in Utah, now I know. Thanks for all you do. Very interesting post.:)

Jolene_Gary said...

Wow, I was one of those people asking why you didn't stay in Utah, now I know. Thanks for all you do. Very interesting post.:)

Mom said...

I always new chad would be a fire fighter. He was always fascinated by it. I'm proud, I know he loves his job and has a great wife and family that support him. Keep up the good work but to all fire fighters, be careful!

Natalie and Mike said...

That was such an awesome post.. We need more people like you in this world! Def appreciate more of what you guys go through in your line of work.. Obviously I didn't think it would be easy-def scary at times, but I'm glad their is a way that you can have a little fun while on the job.. Even though these fires didn't effect me personally, I want to Thank You for sacrificing yourself in doing something for someone else... Love Ya Chad!

Hendricksonblog said...

I would need lots of drugs if I were Rebecca. Kinda freaks me out, plus I don't like to be hot and I think it just might be hot there. Remind Danny that Electricity is also very hot and lethal. LOL

Angie said...

I heart fire fighters! After having that fire so close to us I truly saw just how much you guys do. Amazing work my friend and I hope you have life insurance!

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