Rural or city, fighting fires can be deadly

July 08, 1994|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Sun Staff Writer

Other than a shared enemy, the urban and the rural firefighter have little in common. They do not look alike or fight alike. They do not travel the same way to work or use the same tools once they get there.

But, as events in Glenwood Springs, Colo., have grimly demonstrated in the past days, firefighting is the nation's most dangerous profession, whether it is practiced in the middle of a city or on the slope of a mountain consumed by flames.

"There's no difference," said George Burke, a spokesman for the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). "Wherever they're working, these people are putting their lives on the line every single day."

While the urban firefighter is familiar here on the East Coast, the wildfire fighter is a rarer breed in these parts. The reason is simple. The East is wetter and greener than the West and therefore experiences fewer forest fires. Most of 70,000 wild land fires each year occur in the West, so naturally, that is where RTC most of the nation's 80,000 wild land firefighters are stationed.

Many of those firefighters, like most of those in Glenwood Springs, work for the federal government, generally with either the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. Many Western states also have their own wild lands firefighting services. California, for example, has as many as 15,000 people available to fight fires during its peak season from May to October. Half of them are women.

Because forest fires tend to be seasonal, so too are most of those who fight them. Most wild lands firefighters are part-time. Many are volunteers. Some are criminals. Fighting fires is a coveted job for California inmates who are neither violent nor serving sentences longer than a year. Convicted arsonists also need not apply.

Like their urban counterparts, wild lands firefighters man stations and have to be available for immediate dispatch. Steve Nemore, a firefighter for the Bureau of Land Management in Boise, Idaho, said that the goal is to be on the way to a fire within eight minutes. Night-time firefighting, however, is often ruled out as too dangerous.

Mr. Nemore, 47, is a "smoke jumper," a firefighter who parachutes from airplanes to fight forest fires. Smoke jumpers were celebrated in Norman Maclean's mournful retelling of the tragic Mann Gulch fire in "Young Men and Fire." Thirteen smoke jumpers died in that 1949 Montana fire.

Aside from airplanes, helicopters and four-wheel-drive vehicles are used to get to rural fires.

Instead of the heavy, fire-retardant coats that urban firefighters use, wild land firefighters wear lightweight, fire-resistant clothing with hoods and goggles. As tools they use shovels and implements called McClouds, which scrape brush away, and chain saws.

One other item all wild land firefighters are required to carry is a fire shelter, an aluminum-like packet that can be transformed into a fire-resistant pup tent. Firefighters call the shelters "shake 'n' bakes." As a last resort, the firefighter surrounds himself with the shelter while crouching close to the ground. The idea is that the fire will go over the shelter while sparing the firefighter.

Faith Duncan, a firefighter with the Forest Service who is now at Glenwood Springs, said the shelter once saved her life. "It's a pretty scary experience," said Ms. Duncan, a firefighter for 20 years. "It sounded like a train going overhead."

Reportedly, some of those who perished in the Glenwood Springs fire were attempting to deploy their shelters when the fire, rapidly shifting directions in the volatile winds, caught them.

In calling for an investigation of the deaths yesterday, Alfred K. Whitehead, president of the IAFF, called the shelters "woefully inadequate."

The strategy of fighting a forest fire is to deny the fire fuel, to remove from its path anything that will fortify it. Firefighters will cut away brush to try to create a fire line. If they can, they will use heavy machinery, bulldozers sometimes, to make an unbridgeable gap. They will also use water and fire-retardant chemicals dropped from overhead.

Karen Terrill, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the preferable and safest strategy of fighting large forest fires is to create a fire line some distance from the fire and allow it to burn itself out. But the proximity of homes and businesses often requires attacking the fire where it is. That creates a far more dangerous situation for the firefighters.

And unfortunately, Ms. Terrill said, more and more wildlife fires require the riskier approach.

The Glenwood Springs fire crept within 300 yards of a subdivision and 500 yards of a shopping mall.

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