Firefighters in the Wildland Urban Interface: Facing Risks in Protecting Your Family and Home
Wildland fires continue to increase in the Western United States as hot, dry and windy conditions persist, resulting in an extended fire season and conditions conducive to fires. When wildfires occur in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), the area where houses meet undeveloped land, they can easily become catastrophic because a large number of people, homes and structures are at risk.
When a fire ignites in these areas, a quick and aggressive response from fire departments, wildland fire agencies and many other resources is required. The firefighters from West Metro Fire Rescue who respond to wildfires within Ken-Caryl face significant health and safety risks. In addition, the deputies of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office are at risk as they move into threatened areas to assist residents in evacuations.
Wildland firefighting can be a dangerous occupation. Over the past 10 years, more than 200 firefighters have died while participating in wildland fire suppression activities. These fatalities have occurred among federal, state and local firefighters as well as private and military personnel.
Hazards that wildland firefighters may encounter include:
Firefighters working in hot weather may experience heat stress. Heat stress can progress into heat strain (physiologic changes such as increased core body temperature and heart rate) and, without appropriate intervention, can progress into heat-related illnesses (heat rash, cramps, exhaustion or heat stroke).
Firefighters can also experience physical and mental fatigue during a wildland fire due to strenuous work activity, high altitudes, long and irregular work shifts, lack of sleep, improper nutrition, and unpredictable and stressful events. Fatigue and stress can increase the risk of injury, accidents and poor health.
Wildland firefighters are also exposed to a variety of hazards that may put them at risk of both fatal and non-fatal injuries while on the job. Hazards wildland firefighters may encounter include:
• Slips, trips and falls
• Scrapes and cuts from tools and equipment, such as chainsaws
• Struck by partially burned trees (snags) falling in wooded areas
• Contact with plants such as poison ivy
• Injuries sustained in crashes of vehicles/airplanes/helicopters
• Electrocution from downed power lines and lightning storms
• Unstable building structures
• Exposure to venomous snakes in the open space
Respiratory Hazards from Smoke, Ash and Debris
Smoke and dust from a wildfire can be composed of a variety of inhalation health hazards, including gases, such as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and formaldehyde, and particulates, including ash and silica. Structural fires that occur during a wildland fire may generate additional hazardous contaminants from the many materials present in homes and buildings. For example, car batteries or mercury lightbulbs present in homes and buildings have a greater potential to contain asbestos and lead. Firefighters cannot wear the breathing apparatus worn in structural fires due to weight issues.
Wildland firefighting is physically demanding, placing firefighters at risk for heart attacks, strokes and other cardiac-related events while fighting wildfires.
Methods wildland firefighters use to reduce risks include:
LCES (Pronounced Laces)
Lookouts, Communications, Escape routes and Safety zones (LCES) must be established and maintained on every wildfire. Rapid, unexpected changes in fire behavior during all phases of fire operations can kill wildland firefighters.
Firefighters must always carry appropriate health and safety equipment, including a fire shelter. Training is critical so crews know when to properly use the safety equipment.
Awareness of Trees & Terrain
Firefighters exercise extreme caution when working in timber canopy areas and around power lines. Every tree has some level of hazard associated with it. Even fine fuels, such as the grasses in Ken-Caryl Open Space pose risks; many fatalities and entrapments have occurred in areas of fine and sparse fuels where terrain and wind produce unexpected, extreme fire behavior.
Wildland firefighting can be a dangerous occupation. These men and women place themselves in harm’s way to protect the lives and property of those living in the affected areas. Wildland firefighters must constantly assess the potential risks versus benefits in attacking a fire or protecting your home. Residents of Ken-Caryl can reduce firefighter risks by preparing for and safely evacuating in the event of wildfire.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 21, 2016 Life at Ken-Caryl paper.