How Do Fire-Fighters Overcome Devastating Wildfires?

Although wildfires look absolutely awesome, they can be disastrous to environmental wellness. These devastating spectacles, like the Rim Fire raging in Yosemite, California, take only hours to devour large swaths of forest and grassland, which puts the wellbeing of the planet at risk – not to mention that of humans – and requires a special approach by fire-fighters to battle such blazes.


In order to combat wildfires, fire-fighters need to combine traditional techniques with newer technologies. This may mean using firebreaks to contain the voracious flames, while utilising drones and satellite imaging to monitor the fire’s progress. According to Julie Hutchinson, battalion chief of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), for the last five years wildfire activity has been 50% above average which, if uncontained, poses a threat to human wellness and property. She commented, ‘We’re always looking for technology that could benefit the public and fire-fighters and provide an additional layer of safety.’


Containing the blaze is obviously the immediate priority for fire-fighters once the wildfire gathers steam. Usually, this involves sending fire trucks and related equipment, ground crews, bulldozers and aircraft. The fire-fighters begin by laying down hoses every 100 feet along the fire’s edge and then the bulldozers create a firebreak or fire line around this perimeter. This is a strip of land or trench in which anything that might potentially fuel the fire – i.e. dry bush or grass – is removed. Hutchinson explained, ‘We don’t want the fire to come out of that area, and the only way to do that is to remove any fuel.’


In certain situations, it’s appropriate for fire-fighters to create a controlled burn. This technique, known as “firing out”, involves starting a fire between the wildfire and a natural barrier, such as a road, to direct the blaze and remove any vegetation in the wildfire’s path. Meanwhile, aircraft such as helicopters fly over the fire and maintain an air-attack, dumping water or suppressant foam on hotspots. When the foam is used, it insulates unburned fuels in order to prevent them from catching fire. Airtankers also monitor the fires and feed camera footage and GPS data a computer system to improve models of the fire’s behaviour.


Over the Rim Fire, a Predator drone has been deployed for the first time, which is different to a manned airplane in that remotely piloted aircraft doesn’t risk the life of the pilot, and can fly over the fire for much longer. As it stands, the fire-fighters are using the drone’s gathered information to better allocate their ground fire-fighting resources to where they are most needed. The drone is also providing vital information as to critical infrastructure locations, such as power lines, gas lines and water systems that are in the fire’s path. Hutchinson pointed out, ‘Where it becomes important is when you start having multiple fires in a state, and you’re having to allocate resources.’


Mark Cochrane, a senior scientist at the Geospatial Sciences Center of Excellence at South Dakota State University, uses satellites data to determine the best techniques for preventing wildfires. He noted, ‘This information helps us understand how what we’ve done on the landscape affects fires now.’ He asserted that the most effective methods – albeit dependant on the region in which the fire occurs – tend to be forest thinning and prescribed burns, as the aim of both of these techniques is to eliminate fire fuel before the fire occurs. Cochrane added, ‘It’s inevitable wildfires will occur. Accepting that fire is part of the landscape, what can we do to inoculate [the land] so that areas where people are living or that are highly valued do not burn?’

Comments are closed.