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Nature’s firefighters: Similar tactics but different enemy

By Steve Ranson
An Army National Guard maneuvers for a water bucket drop.
Courtesy Nevada National Guard
NOMADS In 2017, a fire camp was set up at the Draw Fire near Cold Springs. Here’s another look at how a camp provides services near the front line. https://www.nevadaappeal.com/news/lahontan-valley/nevadas-nomads/

Seven years ago, 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots from Prescott, Ariz., died when a raging wildfire caused by dry lightning overwhelmed them.

Their tragic deaths created more awareness of the dangers firefighters face in their profession. Since that time, more firefighters have lost their lives battling Mother Nature’s fury.

Many who have served in the military or fought forest or wildland fires note the similarities in training and approach. The men and women who have done both are the first to attest to the similarities. Both are dangerous jobs. I worked with hotshot crews — the infantry — and saw their hard work on the front line. The Granite Mountain hotshots on the front line then, like today’s crews, have everyone’s back for safety.

In a 2013 column on seasonal firefighters, I described the training various crews complete prior to the fire season and what it entails. One fire boss in Reno who I’ve known for 40 years compared firefighting and the military as facing a different enemy. Fire agencies have modeled Incident Command Systems and their entire methodology and leadership concepts after the military. Nothing was more evident of this when I drove to a fire camp at Cold Springs more than three years ago. Its appearance resembled a small bivouac site miles away from the fire’s center.

“Many individuals who have different responsibilities in the firefighting community, though, may represent the last defense of fighting forest or wildland fires before flames edge toward dwellings or critical wildlife habitat,” I wrote in that 2013 column. “At every major fire in the Great Basin this summer, a tent city pops up, housing critical needs or sections required to sustain the small firefighting community of personnel coming from the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service or local agencies such as the Nevada Division of Forestry.”

Wildland firefighters are nomads, similar to their counterparts who train and battle the forest fires we’re seeing up and down West Coast this summer, especially in California, Oregon and Washington. Like soldiers, firefighters advance to capture land from the enemy. Like soldiers, they must assess the situation, draw out a plan, discuss the pros and cons of their decision and then attack. I attest to the similarities between the two. During the summers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was a wildland firefighter with the Bureau of Land Management in Elko County, but one year I spent the summer with Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District’s Washoe Lake station. I never fought in a wildland fire with the intensity of those burning this summer, but firefighters receive the same basic instruction which is tailored to the lands they are entrusted to save.

“Topography and weather are direct influences in strategy and tactics,” the fire boss messaged me. “Leadership concepts, chain of command, manageable span of control, communications, after action reviews … all like the military. We even do staff rides on former battlefields (fires) to learn how decisions were made, just like the military.”

Every season, firefighters must show endurance and strength by passing a rigorous test and undergoing refresher courses. In this hot, dry heat, they must be able to withstand long days of near or above 100-degree temperatures. Seasoned veterans of firefighting lend their expertise in training the raw recruits. Life on the front line of a fire is hard. Heat, dust, smoke. When the stomach growls, the go-to meals are MRES (Meals Ready to Eat), a high-calorie staple of nourishment. If they’re lucky, firefighters will receive a hot meal when they return to the base camp to rest.

Another retired battalion chief who spent his career with Truckee Meadows and the NDF, pointed out the perfect scenario of fighting a fire is shattered when homes and infrastructure are added. This lends more insight into what firefighters are facing this summer when homes burn to the ground, and people evacuate to safer areas.

“Then it becomes a new and more dangerous incident,” he said. “Once you commit resources to structure protection, and sometimes rescue to protect life safety, the complexity grows exponentially, sometimes to the breaking point, like the fire that destroyed the town of Paradise.”

We witnessed that in 2018 when fire destroyed Paradise and now with infernos wiping out small communities from California to western Oregon and north to eastern Washington state. It rips my soul to see the areas burn, having vacationed in Oregon two summers ago.

I spent the majority of my firefighting days as part of a three-person crew on a 500-gallon engine, but on occasion, the BLM sent us to Idaho or Utah to assist other agencies. On one occasion, my crew reported to a 79,000-acre fire outside of Phoenix in 1979 before the Fourth of July weekend. The summer temperatures reached over 107 degrees. Most of the time on other fires during that and subsequent summers, we stayed on a fire for a week or less, but that’s when they weren’t as intense and widespread as they are now. Then, as now, we protected ourselves by wearing face coverings so we wouldn’t inhale the thick smoke.

Likewise, I also had the opportunity to work with HELITAC crews who flew to a fire aboard a small four-passenger Bell helicopter. Once at the fire, the HELITAC crew became hotshots, and the pilot attacked the fire by dropping 150 gallons of water from a bucket. In my first two years, I spent some time on a HELITAC crew, especially when an engine couldn’t reach the flames, like on the side of a mountain or on a peak.

On huge fires, we relied on help from larger planes dropping retardant on the front line.

To this day, I remember the first pilot who flew us in the eastern section of Elko County. His name was Dave, a Vietnam veteran with many hours behind the controls of a helicopter. He approached the target with the precision of an experienced, intrepid pilot. Flying was not for the weak at heart. Instead of focusing on the Viet Cong, his enemy was Mother Nature’s wickedness.

A pilot’s skill and experience are needed to fight these battles caused mostly by dry lightning, and millions of viewers saw the coolness of Army National Guard pilots from California. A CH-47 Chinook helicopter and a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter maneuvered through thick smoke to begin rescuing 200 people stranded near the Mammoth Lake Reservoir in the Sierra National Forest, which is northeast of Fresno.

The image that resonates from his rescue is a packed Chinook taking rescued campers back to safety. The pilots relied on their experience and used night vision goggles to fly through the thick smog to a landing spot. The helicopters made three evacuation trips.

One of the pilots, who had 25 years experience flying helicopters, equated the mission as dangerous as one of his missions in the Middle East.

Nevada Air and Army National Guard pilots have also honed their skills in firefighting and, likewise, performed heroic acts to save people and property and have assisted in the firefighting battles this season. I rode with our pilots in Afghanistan, and they were trained to be ready for any scenario.

Firefighting is not a profession for the weak-hearted or those afraid to face danger head on … much like a soldier’s mission. Fire’s unpredictability can cause serious injuries, burns or death.

The next time the local or national news programs show firefighters in action or a helicopter whisking stranded campers out of an area, think of the dangers they all face on the frontline.

What I said seven years is still true today: “They — like soldiers — may be the only line of defense between a fire’s fury and the community that is waiting anxiously for good news.”

Steve Ranson is editor emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News.