Firefighting is an inherently dangerous activity. But that’s partly why you’re thinking about it, isn’t? That being said, fire managers take INCREDIBLE care to avoid putting firefighters in danger, and that commitment to safety is evident from day one. You will drill on deploying a fire shelter. You will spend the first two weeks in the classroom, and safety will be routinely emphasized. You will memorize the ten standard firefighting orders and the 18 Watch-outs (10s and 18s):
10 Standard Firefighting Orders
Keep informed on fire weather conditions and forecasts.
Know what your fire is doing at all times.
Base all actions on current and expected behavior of the fire.
Identify escape routes and safety zones and make them known.
Post lookouts when there is possible danger.
Be alert. Keep calm. Think clearly. Act decisively.
Maintain prompt communications with your forces, your supervisor, and adjoining forces.
Give clear instructions and insure they are understood.
Maintain control of your forces at all times.
Fight fire aggressively, having provided for safety first.
18 Fire Watch-Out Situations
Fire not scouted and sized up.
In country not seen in daylight.
Safety zones and escape routes not identified.
Unfamiliar with weather and local factors influencing fire behavior.
Uninformed on strategy, tactics, and hazards.
Instructions and assignments not clear.
No communication link with crewmembers/supervisors.
Constructing line without safe anchor point.
Building fireline downhill with fire below.
Attempting frontal assault on fire.
Unburned fuel between you and the fire.
Cannot see main fire, not in contact with anyone who can.
On a hillside where rolling material can ignite fuel below.
Weather is getting hotter and drier.
Wind increases and/or changes direction.
Getting frequent spot fires across line.
Terrain and fuels make escape to safety zones difficult.
Taking a nap near the fire line.
My favorite watch-out situation is the last one (Taking a nap near the fireline). But it’s no joke. You’re going to sleep on the job. Especially when you’re busting ass on an initial attack. You might pull a 24 or 36 hour shift. And you and your crew might need to take a breather.
But there are plenty of other hazards out there besides sleeping on the line.
Poison Oak. There’s a quote that’s inaccurately given to Ben Franklin that says “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy”. If Ben Franklin, or whoever really uttered that famous quote, were to find himself fighting a fire in California, he might be motivated to add to it by saying “And poison oak is proof that Satan hates us and wants us to be miserable.” There’s just no escaping that terrible little plant. You need to accept that you will have poison oak for a good part of the season. Especially if you’re a swamper. I’ll never forget one of my first fires, we had to start cutting our fireline through a dense thicket of poison oak, and there was no getting around it. I had to reach in there, and grab armfuls of the stuff and toss it into the green. Inevitably, I would spend most of the fire season with poison oak on my wrists, right in the gap where my gloves met my Nomex shift. There are a few lotions on the market that claim to protect you from the oils of poison oak if you apply it in advance of contact. I never thought they made much of a difference.
Foot Rot. Aka Trench Foot. The formal name for this is Immersion Foot Syndrome. And while you probably will never get anything nearly as severe as soldiers did in the World War I, while they were battling in the trenches, if you’re not careful (or prepared), after a few days of wearing the same socks and laboring hard during the day, your feet can morph into itchy, blotchy, irritated appendages from hell. Prevent this by changing your socks religiously and taking every opportunity to let your feet breathe. Don’t sleep in your socks.
Chafing. There’s nothing life-threatening about chafed skin. But man, will it make your life miserable. Early in my fire career, my line gear wasn’t dialed in properly, and I got horrific chafing beneath my shoulder straps. That little patch of skin where the chest meets the shoulder and armpit was rubbed raw from a hard day of swinging a pulaski. The next day was brutal. Every swing of the tool, and my straps rubbed against the wound. It was maddening. It was all I could think about. Fortunately, I had some Gold Bond, but those days were long. With some help of some veterans, we figured out that my line gear was too loose around the hips, and too tight around the shoulder straps. I tightened up my hip belt,so I carried more weight on my hips, and I never had that problem again. The moral of this story is too always carry Goldbond in your line gear, and the second you feel a hotspot developing. Address it. An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure!
Heat Exhaustion. At some point, you will succumb to the heat. I was on a fire on the Plumas National Forest near Lake Oroville on 110+ degree day in mid-July when the heat just drove me into the ground. I was running saw, and kept “rocking it” (dropping the tip of the saw into the dirt, not fist pumping the sky) while limbing up trees. It got to the point where my chain was duller than the rocks I kept hitting, and I needed to either replace it or sharpen it. I sat down with my saw, and decided to put a new chain on. My saw partner fished a new one of my pack and handed it to me. I broke the saw down, took the old chain off, stashed it, and then stared awkwardly at the new chain and the bar of the chainsaw. I couldn’t figure out which way the teeth were supposed to go. Mind you, this was my second season, and I had probably taken apart this saw and reassembled it hundreds of times. But in that moment, I was so exhausted, so fatigued, that I could not determine how to put the chain back on properly. Fortunately, my squaddie saw that I was struggling and pulled me off the saw to give me a breather. Looking back on it, I pushed it farther than I should have. I could have injured myself, or someone else running that saw in such a state. But that’s the thing about heat exhaustion. You don’t realize how bad off you are. Which is why it is imperative to keep a watch on your fellow crew members. Learn the signs of heat exhaustion, and don’t be afraid to call it out when someone looks to be fading.
Carbon Monoxide Poisoning. I have no idea if I have other, formally, experienced ‘carbon monoxide poisoning’ , but I sure have felt awful after a long shift spent downwind, watching the green for spots, while some other crew got to burn out. I felt nauseous. I felt dizzy when I closed my eyes. My eyes physically hurt. My sinuses felt like someone had taken a fire stoker and pumped pure smoke up each nostril. My throat was scratchy, and my voice sounded like that of a retired appalachian coal miner. Unfortunately, there’s no getting around this part. You are going to suck smoke. It’s part of the job.
Firebugs. If you spend anytime in the woods, expect to run across some mosquitoes. And if you’re hanging out in the desert, don’t be surprised if you happen across a scorpion or two. Those aren’t the bugs I’m talking about. I’m talking about the most terrible bug known to man – the Charcoal Beetle. Affectionately known by generations of firefighters as “Stump humpers” … or something along those lines, because of the way they look when they lay their eggs on burned out stumps, they are universally loathed. Like a plague of locusts, they just appear out of the ether. Suddenly, they’re everywhere. Covering every burned piece of timber on the fire. Terrible little black insects, and then they’ll get on you, and they’ll crawl down your shirt, and up your sleeves, and they’ll bite you. Not hard, but just enough to make you wince and say, “Damnit! I hate these things.” And then smack wherever you felt the pain. You will find yourself rapidly devolving into a sadist as you discover novel ways to kill them. If you’re interested in entomology, there’s a great article here that will tell you everything you need to know about them.
Falling trees. Honestly, I saw the most near misses, not from fire, but from falling trees. It’s a dangerous business, and not surprising that CareerCast.com regularly ranks timber falling as one of the deadliest careers in America (worth noting, firefighting and EMT also are on the list).
While on a fire in the Nez Perce Wilderness in Idaho, my saw partner and I were taking down lodgepole pines that had been killed by mountain pine beetles, and two other saw teams were working closeby. We were rocking and rolling, dumping tree after tree – it was a ton of fun. But admittedly, I stopped paying attention to what was going on around me, and started tunneling my vision on tree in front of me. Big mistake. A few minutes later, a lodge pole pine came crashing down mere feet from where I and my saw partner were working. We hadn’t been in the fall line, but when one of the other teams dumped a tree, it deflected off another tree, which deflected off another tree, and ultimately sent a tree tumbling down towards us. Nobody could have predicted the crazy domino effect that happened. But incidents like that happen periodically, and they’re a danger that only caution and high situational awareness can mitigate.
Aviation Helicopter Bucket Drops and Rogue Retardant Drops. I’ll never forget the first time I saw a crew that hit been painted by a retardant drop. Almost to the man, they were streaked with bright red retardant. I thought they looked like the biggest bunch of bad asses. They’d been in the shit! While we were off in the middle of nowhere, prepping dozer line for a burn-show that night, these guys had been on the front-line, so to speak, and had the stains to prove it. Later on, while talking to my Captain, he shared some horror stories about retardant drops. Leave it to a rookie to fail to see any danger in thousands of gallons of water raining down on a crew. Dead limbs get ripped from the canopies and shower down on crews like timber shrapnel; mini mud-slides form that can send rocks, boulders, and downed logs careening down a hill-side. Hell, he said, sometimes the retardant itself doesn’t get mixed thoroughly and chunks as big as your head of solidified powder can pummel you. I’m not sure if the latter is true or not, but it’s a rather terrifying thought. The closest I ever came to getting plastered by retardant was on a fire literally on the Colorado-New Mexico border. We were cutting line uphill through stands of juniper and pinyon pines, and were about a hundred yards from the ridgeline. Suddenly, without warning a small cessna buzzed the ridgeline, waggling its wings back and forth, flashing its lights. I had no idea what the heck was going on. But our Captain and Squaddies sure did. They knew that a C-5 with a belly-full of retardant was coming in hot, right behind the spotter plane. And that wing waggling? That was a cue to the C-5 pilot instructing him to drop on our location. Immediately, we killed our saws and started running sidehill, perpendicular to the fireline. Maybe ten seconds later, sure enough, down came the red rain, right where we had been We were spared, but it could have been a major safety issue had our leaders not recognized the hazard.
Even helicopter bucket-drops can pose significant hazards to a crew. While on a fire on the Dixie National Forest, just outside of St. George, UT, I was hit dead-on by an errant bucket drop from a Sikorsky-58 helicopter. It’s bambi-bucket probably carried about 300-500 gallons of water – a fraction of what a tanker carriers – but when it hit me, it felt like a metal folding chair had been slammed viciously across my back. It knocked the wind out of me, and planted me face down in the dirt. Fortunately, it’s nothing more than an amusing story to tell now, but it could have been a lot worse, and it literally brought the dangers of aerial firefighting right to my face. After that, I always kept an eye on any aircraft that was buzzing around. Like so many things in fire, maintaining your situational awareness is crucial to staying safe.
Chainsaws. Every year while I was in fire, there seemed to be a story of someone who managed to slice themselves up pretty-good with a chainsaw. They’re fearsome machines that can auger through brush-fields and timber s with ease – soft tissue doesn’t stand a chance. While on a fire in the Feather River canyon in Northern California, my saw partner sliced my boot while we were bucking logs. He thought he cut my foot off. I’ll never forget the look of terror on his face. We both got lucky that day. He was as solid of a sawyer as they come. He grew up in a logging family. He’d been running saws his whole life. I trusted him before the near miss, and I trusted him after. He was good. But the point is, accidents happen even to experts, and when you’re tired, and it’s dark, all it takes is a microsecond to lose your focus. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was to “Always fear the saw.”
Falling debris. I watched with horror while a bowling-ball sized rock came hurtling down a hillside and slammed into the knee of my squad boss on the Mendocino National Forest. It tore his knee up bad, and put him out of commission for a few weeks, but it could have been much worse. On another fire on the Plumas National Forest, I watched a saw team from another crew bucking up a log above another saw team. After a few cuts, the log broke loose, and started rolling out of control towards the crew below. The crew literally dove for cover on the downhill side of a freshly-cut stump and watched in terror as the log hit the stump and sailed over them. Quick thinking saved their lives, but they never should have been in that situation to start. Never work above a crew, and avoid walking above a working crew below. If it’s necessary, make sure to communicate with them, be careful where you step, and if you do knock loose a rock, call it out, and keep calling it out until the danger has passed.