Don’t Know the Fundamentals of Wildland Firefighting? It’s Time to Learn

By Scott Cook

How fast can you run?

On Friday, April 15, Eastland, Texas, firefighter Gregory Simmons died in a wildland fire. Simmons’ death was initially thought to be the result of being overrun by the fire, but a later report from the medical examiner relates that he died from blunt-force trauma.

Standing in front of a burned out fire truck, volunteer firefighter Steve Forbus pauses while he talks about the firefighter that was killed while trying to escape a wildfire that burned the truck in Eastland County near Gorman, Texas, Saturday, April 16, 2011. "It was a very emotional day for us," said Forbus. Volunteer firefighter Gregory M. Simmons, 51, died as he and other firefighters fled the truck as it was being overrun by flames.
(AP Photo/LM Otero)

Following the initial report of Simmons’ death, when it was thought he was overrun by the fire, there were discussions on how fast a fire can move. With high winds in North Texas on April 15, news reports related that the fire was moving at 8–10 mph. That might not appear that fast, but looks can be deceiving.

An 8-mph fire is moving at 704 feet per minute—almost 12 feet per second—while a 10-mph fire is moving at 880 feet per minute (nearly three football fields)—almost 15 feet per second.
For that matter, a 3-mph fire moves at almost a football field per minute and almost 4½ feet per second.

Now this might not seem like too much of a challenge until you consider the fact that the average speed for a person running in appropriate running attire on flat level ground is 6 mph, when running a mile or more. I do not dispute that running for one’s life would make one run faster but would it be fast enough?

Just how fast can a firefighter run in wildland gear and heavy boots over uneven ground, blinded by, and choking on, smoke? How long do you think that same firefighter can run at that speed? One minute? Two minutes? More?

Put simply: You can’t hope to outrun a wildfire. To stay safe, you must remember your basic fundamentals of wildland firefighting. It’s not as simple as spraying water on things that are on fire. And if you don’t know the fundamentals, meet with your state’s forestry service and get some training. Soon.

Wildland firefighting can be dangerous and unpredictable. It is imperative that you receive the necessary training to keep yourself safe so that we don’t suffer the loss of another firefighter.

Editor’s Note: Firefighter Gregory Simmons lost his life in the service of his community. Our thoughts are with his family and with all the responders answering the call to protect lives and property in the Texas wildfires.

Scott Cook is the former chief of the Granbury (Texas) Volunteer Fire Department and a fire service instructor. He’s also a member of FireRescue’s editorial board.

Copyright © Elsevier Inc., a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Comment by Jason Myer on April 22, 2011 at 3:53pm
@Jeff... its a great system and well designed, the problem that we would have here in the states the multitudes of designs that there is in wildland apparatus. Everything from heavy Type III 4 wheel drive engines with fully enclosed conventional cabs, to pick ups trucks with slide in pump and tank units. The vehicles that are popular here in Texas and many parts of the mid west are designed for firefighters to ride on external parts of the apparatus while doing mobile attack. In the mountainous regions of the country these vehicles are not only inefficient but can be dangerous due to terrain issues. Now I agree with everyone here in that training training training is the best way to always reduce risk. In this situation the question of how do you get people that are not required to train. Cal OSHA tryed to make it maditory across the board and a lot of volunteer departments in California lost members. folks that were willing to do basic training, but in the end jsut wanted to be able to show up and help their fellow citizens of an area. Also supplying volunteers and departments with lower tax incomes is essential. full ppe includeing a Fire shelter. Can this prevent anyone from getting injured or worse? no of course not, but it will always increase the ability for everyone to come home. 1*
Comment by Dozin Dan on April 21, 2011 at 9:40am
Well said Jeff Fletcher, and thank you for the post Scott.Here in WI our fire season has been wet, so it is always good to break down the simplest of things of fire behavior one could overlook. We have outfitted our tractorplow units with curtains now, the complete fleet. We have had a shower system for approx 27 years on them, not our trucks however. We rarely put trucks in front of the flames, less "H" Div and evacuation procedures. It is always sad to hear of a fallen brother or sister and my prayers go out to the family and his fire crew. I heard a phrase this year that I am trying to instill in every portion of my life, "Courageous Patience". Remember to take the time to evaluate/ size up the situation, form your strategy, begin the tactics, and remeber to evaluate as you go. Do not "Grab a chunk of line and go!" Stay safe and be well Brothers and Sisters!

Comment by Jeff Fletcher on April 20, 2011 at 6:22pm
Time for the US Authorities to look at the burn over protection systems fitted to tankers in Australia. All Crew Cab Tankers in the Country Fire Authority of Victoria have spray systems fitted and kevlar curtains in the cab, the crews ride out the burnover in the vehicle. The older tankers which have 3 crew on the back in the Roll Over Protection System have woollen blankets and hoses fitted with spray nozzles and we practice regularly what is called going in to Safety and Survival Mode. All of the older tankers are being retrofitted with a spray system and pull out drop down kevlar curtains that will protect the crew on the ROPS. Several crews survived on Black Saturday (Feb 7 2009) when their vehicles were trapped in a burn over situation, the system works.

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