Students and instructors from Cal Fire participate in live fire drills during a week of intensive training designed to teach firefighting operations. Linnea Edmeier/KQED
Students and instructors from Cal Fire participate in live fire drills during a week of intensive training designed to teach firefighting operations. (Linnea Edmeier/KQED)

How Firefighters Learn to Fight Wildfires With Fire

How Firefighters Learn to Fight Wildfires With Fire

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Drought or no drought, big wildfires are never won with just water. Typical wildland fire engines carry only 500 gallons of water, which can be used up in as little as five minutes.

Todd Derum, a division chief for Cal Fire, is one of those sent out to manage large wildfires. He says in addition to strategy and tactics, an appreciation for water conservation is key to any fire incident.

"Early in our firefighting career, particularly in the wildland arena, we’re taught to conserve water," Derum says. “Even in good years, water isn’t always readily accessible.”

Earlier this summer, Derum trained officers on the art of fighting wildfires in Northern California. The annual training takes place just before the height of fire season, and moves from classroom exercises to live fire drills conducted on grassy hillsides over the course of five days. The point of the training is to teach students how to fight fire not with water, but with fire.

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At the start of the second day of live fire training, Capt. Matt Ryan stands on the back of a flatbed truck and begins the morning briefing.

A student uses a drip-torch to set a controlled fire during Cal Fire’s class intended to teach new officers how to fight fire with fire.
A student uses a drip-torch to set a controlled fire during Cal Fire’s class intended to teach new officers how to fight fire with fire. (Linnea Edmeier/KQED)

Twenty-eight students gather behind the truck and listen while standing under a tree. It's the only shade they’ll see for the rest of the day. They spent the previous day in the classroom learning the skills and terminology of how to fight fire with fire.

Today, it’s going to get real.

Ryan starts with a roll call of personnel and a rundown of the weather: “Today, sky is sunny. Max temps 98 to 103 degrees. Much hotter today than yesterday." He finishes with a caution: “The terrain’s going to get a lot steeper in the afternoon."

The terrain Ryan is talking about is rolling hills of dry grass. Bulldozers spent the last few days cutting huge swaths of grass -- buffers -- around plots of land that will be set on fire. Plots are larger than a football field. Inside those plots are smaller squares of grass that represent houses. The students are divided into groups and work together for the duration of the class.

Ryan finishes the briefing and instructs everyone to suit up, then calls out, “Group Two is up first.”

Students and instructors from Cal Fire watch a live fire drill.
Students and instructors from Cal Fire watch a live fire drill. (Linnea Edmeier/KQED)

Students and instructors load up into fire engines and start up a narrow dirt road, winding through trees and brush. Once at the first training site, the six students in Group Two gather halfway up their designated plot, while the rest of the class watches from a vantage point on a hill across a small gully.

Just as the team is organizing its strategy, trainers set a “hostile” fire on the bottom of a hill. Team Two must save the pretend “house” and keep the fire from jumping the buffers.

Some team members hustle up to the top of the hill, while others stop just below the house. Their goal: clear the grass around it to break the path of the fire. They could cut the grass with hand tools, but this fire is moving too fast. The fastest way to clear the brush is to burn it.

Student Jen Marshall, a captain for Cal Fire, takes the lead for this exercise and explains her team’s strategy: "We had some good upslope wind, so we’re going to use that to our advantage to start to light some fire up on the top to give us a good buffer along the edge."

As some students torch the grass, other members keep watch on the hostile fire to make sure it doesn’t creep up on them. But things aren’t going as planned.

“You’re getting head fire heading toward you,” calls out a team member over the radio.

A student uses a drip-torch to set a controlled fire.
A student uses a drip torch to set a controlled fire. (Linnea Edmeier/KQED)

The wind has picked up and it’s making the fires that the team set more intense. That means they could lose control of the entire fire and lose the house. Suddenly, the fire makes a run, and team members scramble as they hear, "Head fire coming at you. Get out of there."

Making their way toward the buffers, which act like safety zones, the students account for one another over the radio and person to person. Meanwhile, the rest of the class watches, critiques and asks questions of more experienced officers.

Once a practice drill is over, the group joins the rest of the students, and instructors begin the most critical part of the exercise: the debrief with the students.

The lead instructor, Cal Fire Chief Mike Parkes, analyzes what he saw and where he thinks things went wrong with this drill.

"When you lit fire from the check line, you created hostile fire halfway up the slope," he says. "Your fire was now a bigger problem than the original hostile fire."

A student uses a fusee to set a controlled fire during Cal Fire's class intended to teach new officers how to fight fire with fire.
A student uses a fusee to set a controlled fire during Cal Fire's class intended to teach new officers how to fight fire with fire. (Linnea Edmeier/KQED)

Parkes says they failed to account for one of the most important threats: wind.

"You guys made a plan based on what you saw. I would base it off of my wind direction that should be baseline you use," he says.

The critiques are pointed, but the word “mistake” is never used, and that’s conscious. Out here is where instructors want the fire to challenge students, and where they want firefighters to deal with situations that require them to think and act decisively under pressure.

Parkes says a positive learning environment is crucial if they want firefighters to learn these skills. Derum says there are no mistakes out here, only opportunities to learn. Fighting fire with fire is almost an exercise in improv -- the trick is not to dwell on what you did wrong but to use that experience when it counts.

In a former life, reporter Linnea Edmeier fought wildfires as a captain with Cal Fire.