The Science Behind Wildfires: The Good and the Bad by Rebecca Hosley for Hike it Baby

While summertime can bring gorgeous weather and a plethora of outdoor adventures, it also provides the perfect weather for fire season. Higher temperatures and lower moisture can dry out vegetation, providing the perfect fuel for wildfires. Add in a stray lightning bolt or a careless flick of a cigarette butt and an entire field or forest can erupt in flames in a matter of minutes. But is fire always a bad thing? And how are they fought in order to minimize the danger and destruction they can cause?

To answer these questions and help break down the science of wildfires, I consulted a good friend of mine, a firefighter named Mike Pelka. Mike has taken a multitude of wildfire classes and has been fighting fires in the Pikes Peak Region for nearly a decade. He has also been deployed to assist in fighting larger wildfires in different states. Here is the first half of our interview where we discuss the good and bad aspects of wildfires, along with what goes into fighting one.

Q. What inspired you to become a firefighter?

I have always believed in doing work that meant something to me and involved working with my hands. Firefighting provides a unique challenge every call we run. Whether it’s a fire, car accident, medical emergency or some public need, we are who people call to solve their problems. Plus, in every firefighter, resides an 8-year-old child who just wants to put on the helmet and jump on the big red truck.

Q. Wildfires seem to have a bad reputation, but can they be good for the environment as well?

Absolutely. Fire is a completely natural occurrence and should be reintroduced to our forests. A variety of things have come together to create the explosive fire environment we live in today. Aside from global warming, firefighters have done their job too well for too long. Fire has not been allowed to be a part of our natural spaces and they have overgrown to an unhealthy point. This leads to a dense, compacted and disastrous forest that, when it does catch fire, can be tragic.

Another factor is that more and more urban development is happening up to or even within wildland environments. We call this the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). This is a tricky place, because it is where we have the greatest duty to protect property, but sometimes presents as the most dangerous position when fires come through. Unfortunately, the WUI is also an area where forests have overgrown, and without human and homeowner intervention to reduce these risks, inevitably fire will take its course.

Fire Departments, Land Mangers, and Incident Command Teams have ways of keeping fire a part of the environment while lessening the risk to the public. Control burns are fires specifically set to help revitalize small sections of forest or grasslands. These take months or years to plan and involve a lot of resources since they are intentionally set. Another tactic to keep fire in the environment involves large fires that are already burning. If they are within areas that pose little or no threat to the public, they are allowed to burn without intervention, but with a very close eye. Resources may be sent to protect small communities, neighborhoods or structures and simply guide the fire around them.

The Science Behind Wildfires: The Good and the Bad by Rebecca Hosley for Hike it Baby

Q. What goes into fighting a wildfire?

This is a very simple question, with so many complex answers. Any fire is a changing and dynamic environment and, therefore, our response to it has to match. Fire Departments fight fires based on the Incident Command System (ICS), which allows us to grow or reduce an incident as it progresses. Most wildfires are small in size, low in complexity and last a short duration. However, if fuels, weather and terrain are not in our favor, small fires can become enormous quickly.

Wildfires are influenced by three main factors: fuels (grasses, shrubs, trees and, unfortunately, homes), weather (hot, dry and windy conditions — think Red Flag warning days) and terrain (heat rises, fire burns faster uphill and steep slopes make it harder and riskier for firefighters to access and work). Firefighters are taught about Extreme Fire Behavior, things like plume-dominated fires (fires driven by the convective currents they create), firewhirls (fire tornadoes) and fires making large crown runs (fire burning violently and quickly through the tops of trees). Unfortunately, with the rise of global warming, these fire behaviors are becoming the norm and can be seen at almost every large fire.

Q. What resources are required to fight a fire?

Manpower varies drastically. Small initial attack (IA) fires typically can be fought with only a few resources, whereas large incidents that are run by Federal Incident Command Teams can have thousands of resources. These resources and what tasks they can perform also vary. Hand crews are teams of 20+ firefighters that attack a fire by using hand tools. The elite are called “Hotshot” crews. Some crews can rappel into fire from a helicopter and are known as “Helitak” crews. Others parachute out of airplanes, known as “Smokejumpers.” Helitak and Smokejumpers are able to access fires quickly that may be deep within a forest. Engines and Brush trucks are another resource. Large fire engines can be used within neighborhoods to help protect structures, whereas smaller brush trucks can engage the fire directly. Aircraft can also be used in a wide assortment. Small and large helicopters can drop buckets of water, whereas small and large airplanes can make short or long lines of water drops. Other resources include bulldozers, water trucks and all the other logistical needs an incident may need.

Q. Can you explain some of the strategies used to fight a wildfire?

Initial Attack (IA) fires tend to be the most chaotic because only a few resources are trying to accomplish a variety of goals, with the primary objective of putting out the fire. Large incidents that we travel to have well-established Command Posts that are sometimes mini-cities, providing food, shelter or camping areas, bathrooms and sometimes even shower trailers. These command teams have to look at a very large picture of the incident and usually we only end up working on a few tasks on one small portion of the fire.

Wildland fire strategies fall under two main categories: direct and indirect. Direct fire attack means that resources go directly to the fire and try to put it out. The main tactics used for this are direct water application to flame, digging handlines (digging a line down to bare soil so that the fire has nothing to burn), laying wet lines (putting water on the unburnt fuels to reduce their likelihood of ignition) or laying black line (lighting our own controlled fire ahead of the main flame front, to remove fuels).

Indirect attack involves fires that may be too large or too inaccessible. This strategy puts space (and ultimately time) between where resources are working and the actual fire. The main tactics used for this are the same as direct attack, but are further away and are usually more involved. Handlines may be 10 feet wide or larger. The most risky indirect attack tactic is the Back Burn, which involves lighting a fire well ahead of the main flame front in hopes that the two draw into each other and leave no fuels to burn.

The Science Behind Wildfires: The Good and the Bad by Rebecca Hosley for Hike it Baby

Laying back burn ahead of a wildfire

Now that we know what goes into fighting a fire, how can we practice wildfire safety when exploring outdoors during wildfire season? Come back to check out part two of my interview with Mike to find out!

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Photos By Mike Pelka

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