Academy Blog Series - Battalion 42

Week 15   Wildland Fire Training

Only three days were available for instruction this week, as Thanksgiving weekend was on the horizon. The long list of objectives scheduled to cover during this short period kept time management as a priority.

To maintain structure and attention to detail, Monday morning started off with a full inspection of all cadet areas, uniform, still to be returned academy issued gear, book storage and locker organization. By 0800 the group stood in the classroom at attention, awaiting the order of “Seats”. The last block exam followed. These exams cover a variety of material and several chapters. Questions are generated from the reading assignments posted on the classroom board. The content of a given exam varies by Battalion as calendars and topics are rearranged every semester to meet instructor and prop availability.  This particular exam had a strong focus on hazardous materials. 

The Basics of Wildland Firefighter Training began at 0900 in the classroom.  A review of wildland terminology covered last Thursday started the session off.  As was mentioned in earlier reading, speaking the same language is crucial to wildland incident mitigation.  Terminology is categorized by topography, wildland fuels, weather and fire behavior, each with its own characteristics.  Slope, aspect, elevation and terrain are topographical terms.  The fuels category lists vegetation by size and type, light grass to heavy timber, each burning significantly different. Weather uses terms such as wind, air moisture, stability and temperature and fire behavior with its descriptions of how fast the fire is moving, rate of spread, and/or how hot the fire is burning, fire intensity.

To paint a paragraph length picture of terms just discussed and using the Ventura Avenue hillsides as a back drop, here is a simple story of how things can come together.  It’s a sunny afternoon on a 4th of July weekend in Ventura, 75-80 degrees, dry vegetation because of drought, afternoon winds blowing from the southwest.  Families living in close proximity of the hillside are celebrating.  An aggressive celebrator lights an air streaming firework into the sky.  The firework turned ignition source lands in the dry vegetation near the base of the hillside.  A small fire starts in light grass. Afternoon winds push the fire closer to the hillside base where fast burning fuel begins to ignite from radiant heat. With the fuel at the hillside base now burning and preheating denser vegetation above it, this very steep slope with a west facing aspect in direct sunlight burns at a rapid rate of fire spread, growing in intensity until it reaches the ridge and is finally able to control.  Aspect, direct sunlight, wind, high percentage of slope, vegetation and fuel moisture all had an influence on the outcome.

Cadets did a thorough job of processing similar information as new terms and suppression concepts were introduced.  It’s very important for them to have an understanding of how all those factors influence the fire behavior and each other.  Topography was shown on the overhead screen as the cadets were taught to study each slope and its given fuel or aspect, the time of day and the resulting fire behavior.  A number of visuals were shown to reinforce comprehension.

The Incident Command System is used when battling wild fires and was discussed at length.  Crews learned how to manage a large fire by dividing the area involved and were later able to identify the type of resources necessary to work the fire. The Standard Firefighting Orders and 18 Watchout Situations, commonly called the 10s & 18s were reviewed a line at a time to reinforce the importance of the orders.  On many occasions fires resulting in injury or death have been investigated and have found these orders and watchouts were not adhered to, thus contributing to the problem causing the injury or death.

After lunch, the group learned how to implement a standard guideline for wild fires called LCES. The mnemonic stands for Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes, and Safety Zones. Each of these life-saving guidelines should be identified and used accordingly to increase chances of survival when fighting wild fires.  A lookout is someone posted high on a ridge or other area offering a full view of the fire’s progress.  This lookout should have strong knowledge of wild fire behavior and constantly monitor the situation below interpreting or predicting fire behavior while maintaining active communications with assigned crews.  Escape routes are the identified paths used to literally escape.  These paths should lead the crews to the predesignated safety zone a short distance away.  If a safety zone cannot be identified within close proximity, then safe refuge areas are temporarily used.

Deploying a fire shelter in adverse fire conditions is one of the most life-threatening situations a wildland firefighter can be in.  These shelters are a part of every crew member’s personal protective gear and are worn at all times during suppression efforts.  Utilizing this protection takes practice.  The shelter, a make-shift one person tent, is folded tight and carried in a canvas clad plastic container.  The wearer must remove the shelter from its case, open the folds to expose an area of the tent to step on, position their body inside and lie down while tucking edges in, not easy, especially when winds are actively blowing.  The group used the duck pond area on the west side of academy grounds to don their tents and yes, a light afternoon wind made for a little fun.

Tuesday morning would be the last pistol range run of the semester.  The range, just over a couple of miles away with a down and back trip measuring in just under five miles, is a nice destination to run to and change of pace from the formation runs throughout the academy grounds.  Class wasn’t scheduled to start until 0900, however the Battalion was instructed to report in uniform at 0830 for the first viewing of the Battalion 42 Grad Movie.  The overall movie last ninety minutes and was sectioned off into three parts to avoid interrupting a day’s lessons.  

Wildland continued with lessons involving the use of ICS.  On this morning, the use of briefings were implemented and ultimately used for the remainder of the semester.  Acting Battalion Officer Gratz was given his orders for the session.  His assignment was to brief his officers, then have them brief their crews on what was to be completed during this period.  The session lasted a bit longer than anticipated as the new officers did their best to complete the task at hand.  The ability to communicate is important, but briefing clear and concise takes practice.

Following the exercise, the Battalion returned to the classroom for Introduction to Wildland Urban Interface WUI Operations.  WUI is the area where hillsides and mountainous terrain backup to adjacent communities.  Providing protection in this interface must be strategic to ensure the safety of crews and the public.  This introductory session prepared the cadets for sand table exercises scheduled the last week of the academy. Transportation Safety discussions followed and led the group to the lunch period.  During the second half of the lunch period, company officers were assigned to outfit their crews with academy issued web gear.  Web gear is a canvas harness or back pack containing a fire shelter, pouches for canteens, radios and compact items.  The gear is worn by every firefighter on the fire lines.

The Battalion reported to the Ventura County Fire airship hanger after lunch for helicopter orientation.  Safety training for operating near these ships is life-saving, with approach and situational awareness playing a key role while in close proximity of moving rotary blades.  The copters carry fire crews to remote places and also serve as air attack dropping water or aerial reconnaissance to ground crews.  The Ventura County Air Crews did a great job welcoming the Battalion and covering basic safety measures to perform during air operations.  Their presence will later be taken advantage of during onsite wildland incident training.

The Wildland Firefighter Training final exam was scheduled for 1400 hours in the academy classroom.  Upon completion, cadets were to gather equipment and personal protective clothing and gear and report to the mat in front of the apparatus bay for introduction training on how to prepare hose packs for deployment.  The packs are worn by working crew members and deployed in progression along the fire line.  Basic pack inventory consists of 200’ of light weight hose measuring one and one-half inch in diameter, clamps to squeeze the hose closed, small metal appliances called in-line hose tees used for attaching one inch hose as needed, and a fire hose nozzle with a handle called a bale, as a shut-off.

Companies worked together rolling the hose and building their packs, with each squad assigned one pack.  Once all groups were donned and ready, a demonstration of how to deploy the packs was given.  Progressive hose lay is the term given to this style of deployment because the lay is advanced in sections along the fire’s edge with the hose always charged full of water.  Cadets had to communicate with one another to roll out the hose to be attached, crimp the charged line closed, bleed the line and remove the nozzle, attach the next hose section, release the hose clamp to allow water flow and advance the charged line further along the fire’s edge while spraying water in a conservative yet productive extinguishing pattern, great practice.  The day ended with hose pack breakdown, wet hose racked for drying, appliances cleaned of debris and gear inventoried. 

The Wednesday morning briefing focused on continued demobe with the stripping of Engine 1 and the return of all remaining non-wildland related academy gear as the morning’s primary focus.  The entire battalion was brought together to discuss assignments and morning expectations.  Alpha Company Officer Hamilton was in-charge of inventorying all SCBA masks, practice rope and nylon tubular webbing, Bravo Company Officer Brinkman and Charlie Company Officer Gullo were responsible for removing, rolling and stacking all large diameter fire hose with Delta Company Officer Villavicenio tasked with removing, rolling and stacking all small diameter hose.  Cadet Whitby was assigned to oversee the placement of all equipment in its designated area, a small rectangular footprint on the apparatus floor.  Equipment was to be placed in a tight, organized fashion. 

With instructions in order, the Battalion set up for their last circuit training workout and last trips of running to the roof of the tower, SCBA donned, arriving and yelling their motto, bitter sweet.  The second grad movie viewing started at 0830.  Cadets watched the footage while listening to classic rock music soundtrack added in the background.  A few cadets made comment relating the music to a movie produced years earlier named “Almost Famous”.  This intrigued me, as I have never seen nor made note of this picture.  Finding, buying and watching this movie over Thanksgiving weekend was just added to my things to do list.

Wednesday’s focused took the cadets deeper into on scene reports, incident management and implementing LCES.  Visuals would be displayed on the screen as cadets took turns talking their way through the given scenario.  This was productive practice because it prepared the group for the afternoon sand table exercises.  A sand table is a free standing table, rectangular shaped, waist high filled half high with sand perfect for shaping.  Fictitious hillside communities can be formed for a variety of wildland fire situations.  Fire engine hot wheels are used as responding apparatus and model scale vegetation as potential fuel for the incoming red yarn bordered wildfire.

A few scenarios were planned and managed in depth, assigning resources into extended attack operations.  Cadets worked the Blunt Fire, fifteen acres burning in light brush with patch timber, southwest winds at twenty miles per hour and wind gusts at forty-five miles per hour.  Cadets had the fire separated into Divisions, with Engine 22 acting as Division Alpha and Engine 21 as Division Zulu.  LCES was established and responding companies, water tenders, dozers, additional engines and hand crews strategically placed.  A number of roles were played as cadets acted out and documented the scenario.

Wildland lessons for the day were completed by 1530 hours.  However, the morning’s demobe assignment had yet to be documented.  Companies used their phones to photograph the inventory removed from Engine 1 earlier.  The pictures were added to written inventory lists as a follow up.  The Battalion did a thorough job of keeping equipment organized while maintaining accountability.  Once all documentation was submitted, Acting Battalion Officer Gratz dismissed the group for the holiday weekend.

It’s the home stretch 42, with only a week on the horizon.  You’re in the midst of a commanding finish.  The demobilization duties you’ve completed thus far are comprehensive and organized.  The new company officers are performing well and appropriately chosen, a round of applause to former Officers Cleary, Gorski, Locke and Minyard for the recommendations.

Captain Crudo