Smokejumpers Guide to Forest Fire Fighting

A smokejumper's guide to forest fire fighting and preventing wildfires, including firefighting tools and knowing when to back off a wildfire.
September/October 1987
Figure 1: The Dragon's Anatomy.


A smokejumper's guide to forest fire fighting and preventing wildfires. 

"If there were dragons to slay and fair ladies to save, the same
sorts who show up to be smokejumpers would be the knights."
— Old-time smokejumper

Smokejumpers Guide to Forest Fire Fighting

My old crony wasn't too far off, because wildfire is a dragon! And smokejumpers are a unique bunch: Gallant, dashing, sometimes a bit grubby (but never tarnished), even sweat-soaked and blackened — they are, in a strange way, noble.

Smokejumpers — some 400 of them in the U.S., 2,660 in the Soviet Union and 50 in Canada — are our best wildfire firefighters, and I'm proud to be one of them. Because they parachute into remote areas, jumpers learn to depend on their wits to make up for a lack of fire trucks, pumpers and assorted gadgets. Common sense, experience, physical conditioning, mental flexibility and straight tactical knowledge make them effective.

I wish I could assure you that the smokejumpers will be around if a wildfire threatens your country home. But the plain truth is that — due to budget cuts, weird government policies or just the sheer proximity of a fire started by, say, your neighbor burning trash — we just might not make it in time. Therefore, one day you may have to face this beast without our help. Read on and let the smokejumpers tell you how to be ready for forest fire fighting.

The Dragon Is Vulnerable

A baby dragon needs all three legs of a heat, fuel and oxygen triangle to be born, grow, reproduce and spread. Remove any leg of this triangle, and the dragon will slow down and eventually die. Wildfire fighters often cool a fire (or its fuel) by pouring water on it; we sometimes starve a burn by clearing away fuel in its path; and at times we'll smother a minor blaze by beating it with damp gunnysacks.

Besides the triangle that gives the dragon life, three environmental factors affect its speed and strength: weather, topography and the nature of the fuel.

Weather: This is the most important influence on how a fire will prosper. In fact, weather actually makes the time ripe for a fire to start by warming, drying and fanning the fuel.

Wind is the most obvious element. It drives the fire forward, dries out fuel and can actually carry firebrands beyond the immediate burn causing new fires to develop.

Humidity is also important, especially when lightweight fuels are present. Grass, lichen, moss and small twigs absorb moisture from the air and so may be reluctant to carry the dragon when the air is humid. Conversely, when the air is dry, light fuels almost immediately become tinder. Humidity can be a dominant factor in firefighting tactics.

Temperature is important, but it's a one-way street. That is, the fire danger is usually greater on hot days, but cold may not squelch a ferocious burn. I've fought fires in Alaska in sub-zero temperatures when the humidity and winds were the dominant factors. Likewise, summer isn't the heavy fire season in the eastern U.S. Spring and fall, when winds blow and the humidity is low, bring the greatest number of wildfires.

Sunlight isn't usually mentioned as an important influence on fires, but I've noticed that it has a lot to do with light-fuel dryness in some situations. I've found that when the weather is hot, sometimes only the vegetation in direct sunlight will ignite. Also, in intense sunlight, a cloud passing can change everything.

Topography: The lay of the land has much to do with how a fire will behave. Slope, orientation and elevation are the main influences.

The steeper the slope, the faster the dragon will run uphill. Fuel upslope is heated by radiation and convection, and it's more accessible to the flames than fuel on flat terrain. There's also the chance that the beast will take of downhill as chunks of burning material roll down. Remember, wind isn't the only thing that determines which way a fire will spread. Slope is a major influence on a fire's behavior.

The direction the slope faces (its aspect) determines, in part, how dry the vegetation will be. South- and west-facing slopes are the driest; north-facing, the most moist. This has become especially important as more and more people turn their homes toward the sun for heating. A solar home is almost automatically more vulnerable to fire hazard and requires wise defensive preparation.

High elevation usually means lower fire danger, since it normally offers cooler temperature, later snow melt and more moist vegetation. However, unless you build in an alpine zone, you probably won't be nearly high enough to have your altitude make much difference.

Fuel: Each ecosystem has different vegetation characteristics. The most important of these are moisture content, piece size, amount per acre, proximity of clumps and horizontal and vertical distribution. Even the chemical make-up of the fuel is important. Some woods have pitch, and there may be flammable oils in leaves or needles.

We smokejumpers talk about wildfires as if we were looking down on them from above — a parachutist's-eye view. Figure 1 (see the illustration in the image gallery) shows the dragon's basic anatomy, describing it in a common language that a group of firefighters could use to discuss strategy and report their positions. Let's go into a little more detail about the parts.

Head: This is the main ball of heat, flames and smoke at the front of the fire's advance. It's usually the most difficult part of the fire to deal with. Sometimes a wind change can blow the fire toward the tail or one of the flanks, causing the head to relocate quickly.

Tail: The back of the fire is usually where it started. On occasion, I've seen a fire burn against the wind. This has happened on slopes with strong downhill winds and on perfectly flat ground. We say the fire is backing, and still call the downwind end the tail.

Left and right flanks: The sides of the fire may have active flames, but they're usually less intense than those at the head. When the head is too hot to approach, firefighters often try to attack the flanks. One flank will generally be less smoky than the other and will be easier to work on.

Flame length: The single most important physical aspect of a fire is the height of the flames licking out from the head. Flame length will determine how and where you'll do battle with the dragon. More often than not, you don't try to kill the dragon by cutting off its oxygen or cooling it. You stop it by denying it fuel. To do so, you clear a path all the way around the fire, encircling it with a fuel-free line two to three feet wide. The actual width and depth of the line depend on the types of fuels present. In the West, we dig down all the way to mineral soil with a Pulaski. But in eastern hardwood forest, we only rake aside the leaves with a fire rake and remove the underbrush.

Any fallen trees that bridge the line need to be cut. Use a chain saw to remove a piece that's as wide as the line or twice as long as the tree's diameter, whichever is greater.

Always attack the dragon from anchor points. These are secured zones from which you begin digging line or beating the flames. You may start at the head or tail of the fire and have half the team move around each flank, or you may split the team initially and work from two anchor points — one on each flank at a natural barrier. The important thing here is that the anchor point is secure — a place where the fire can't run around the line and outflank you. Anchor points are vital to success and safety. It also follows from this principle that it takes a minimum of two people to best fight a wildfire.

If the flame length is short — less than two feet — you can make a direct attack on the dragon's head. When the fire is smoldering, creeping or running along close to the ground, you can usually get up close enough to clear a fuel-free path or actually beat out the flames directly.

When the flames or smoke are a little too intense for you to get close to the head, you can start at the tail and work forward along the flanks. If at all possible, though, go for the dragon's head while it's still vulnerable. Winds could pick up while you're working your way around the flanks, and the head could gain intensity and speed.

If you're unable to go straight for the dragon's head or tail, move out in front of the fire's advance and set up an ambush. In an indirect attack, you dig a line and burn the fuel before the fire arrives. There's no substitute for experience in determining just how far ahead to set the ambush. Lacking that, be sure to err on the side of safety. Move out far enough to give yourself plenty of time to burn out the line and still keep your people out of the dragon's reach.

Dig a line one to three feet wide, depending on the flammability of the fuel and the size of the crew, moving from the head around the flanks. As you go, have the last person in the team burn out on the inside of the line, closest to the fire. The intentional burn will consume the fuel between the fire and the line, halting the dragon's advance.

Know your land and use natural barriers to help you make a stand. Roads, streams, ponds, trails and other natural features are great places to stop the dragon in its tracks. Even a meadow is preferable to a heavily wooded area, because it will be easier for the crew to clear the lighter fuels from the fire's path. In this area, at least, a homeowner can have an advantage over a professional smokejumper. The jumper may have the ability to compute flame length, travel time, manpower and fuel types to estimate what the fire might do. But the homeowner knows where the natural barriers are without having to reconnoiter.

Knowing When to Back Off

Flame lengths greater than about eight feet are considered uncontrollable. Also, if there are ladder fuels lifting low flames up into trees or if there are firebrands being carried past you by the wind and starting spot fires, you're in over your head and are in danger. Back off! There are few jobs more dangerous than fighting out-of-control wildfires. Respect the dragon; it's better to retreat and have a chance to fight again another day.

Editor's Note: Trooper Tom's complete wildfire fighting manual, From Dragon Slayers, is now available. The roughly 60 page book discusses tools, tactics and regional firefighting techniques in much more detail than is possible here. You can order a copy by sending $10 to MOTHER's Plans, Dragon Slayers, Hendersonville, NC. 

Trooper Tom spends his summers as a smokejumper with the Bureau of Land Management at Fort Wainwright, Alaska. He winters in Oregon building houses and ponds. Troop's other publications include an article and a book on log building, both of which were published by MOTHER EARTH NEWS. 

Firefighting Tools

Different regions of the country demand different firefighting tools, but here's a summary of the necessary pieces of equipment, what each does and about what it costs. Since your minimum team is two people, have at least two rakes and two Pulaskies.

Fire rake: This is different from a traditional garden rake. It has triangular tines that prevent it from plugging up with leaves. Its main purpose is to scrape off leaves or pine needles, and it's used mainly on eastern fires. About $25.

Pulaski. Half ax, half mattock, this is the primary hand tool for digging line in western firefighting. With it, you can chop out brush with the ax side and then dig down to subsoil with the mattock. About $50.

Drip torch: An aluminum can full of a 50:50 mixture of gasoline and diesel fuel, the drip torch is the tool for fighting fire with fire. It lays down a stream of flame and is the best device for burning out large areas. A Fuzee, a standard highway flare, will suffice for small areas.

Backpack water pump: This common five-gallon device — often used for distributing agricultural chemicals — is great for wetting down fuels and for mopping up small hot spots after fighting a fire. About $100.

Chain saw: For woodland fires, you'll need something to section downed trees. I've been fond of my Husqvarna 44 and my Homelite 925, but lately I've really taken to Shindaiwa's 695 — a 4.2-cubic-inch saw with a 28-inch bar. Between $350 and $550.

Motorized pump: If you have any sort of body of water — pool or pond — it's worthwhile to have a pump. You can use it to deliver water directly through hose, or you can fill up a fiberglass holding tank in a pickup and have your own miniature pumper. About $300.

Silv-ex: This foaming chemical increases water's ability to cool and penetrate. Used at the rate of a couple of teaspoons per five gallons, it really boosts the efficiency of a backpack water pump. You can also use it with a motorized pump to do larger areas or even to foam your house. About $100 per five gallons from Wajax-Pacific Fire Equipment, Seattle, WA, or you can order smaller quantities from me.

You can probably find most of this equipment at a local dealer. If you run into trouble, though, I'm a dealer for most of these items. Write me at Trooper Tom's Fire Protection Company, Manzanita, OR.