Fire Suppression

Many park visitors and other interested parties often ask, "How do you put out a wildland fire?" The answer is both simple and complex.

Fire Basics

All fires that are suppressed are treated similarly with firefighter and public safety being the primary objectives. All actions come back to the fire triangle that's taught in elementary school.

drawing of fire trianle, with pen and marker

The fire triangle—what a fire needs to burn—fuel, heat, and oxygen.

To put out a fire, heat, fuel or oxygen must be removed. In nature it is often impossible to remove oxygen, so heat and fuel are the components most vulnerable to the firefighters' actions. Putting dirt or water on fire removes the oxygen from the fuel, allowing a single person using a hand tool such as shovel, axe, rake, Pulaski, McLeod or flapper to extinguish small fires. Larger fires require more people and equipment such as engines, pumps, bulldozers, helicopters and air tankers dropping water or fire retardant.

A good firefighter fights fire in many dimensions simultaneously, and acknowledging changes in these dimensions—call Situational Awareness (SA)—is very important Fire occurs on the ground, in the trees, and even in the air, when embers are carried on the wind. So instead of thinking of the fire ground as a tabletop or chessboard, the fire environment is a dome.

The First Steps

Fire suppression starts with the detection of the fire. Next, firefighters, engines, helicopters or other suppression resources are delivered to the fire. Upon arrival, the leader, termed an Incident Commander (IC) executes a size-up of the fire. This is an intelligence gathering phase, where the fuels, terrain, weather, fire size and other fire behavior characteristics are noted and used to determine a strategy and tactics.

The IC then reports to Fire Dispatch or the Fire Management Officer (FMO) and orders resources applicable to the current and expected fire situation. They may begin direct initial attack or use firefighters to establish a helispot or drop point to facilitate logistics depending upon fire size. All fires are managed by using the Incident Command System (ICS). Management positions are added and taken away as dictated by the needs of the fire situation.

Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes, and Safety Zones (LCES)

firefighters hard at work digging

Handtools used to dig fireline, such as the pulaski, are one of the ways a fire can be suppressed.

In fighting a fire, an initial action is to establish an anchor point. This is generally located near the fire origin or other point such as a road, stream, or trail, where firefighters can begin working safely to attack the fire. They will designate a safety zone and mark an escape route to it. The safety zone is an area the fire has already completely burned, or an area that will not burn, like rocks or dirt; and is where firefighters can go if fire conditions worsen and endanger them. Lookouts are posted to protect firefighters from unexpected fire behavior and weather reports are communicated so that there are no surprises with wind shifts or other weather factors. To learn more about some of the things firefighters need to be aware of, see the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders and Eighteen Watch Out Situations.

While the firefighters are working up the sides or flanks of the fire from the anchor point, a variety of other activities could be occurring. Retardant and/or bucket drops may be delivered by helicopter or airplanes to the edge of the fire to cool it enough for firefighters to get next to it to remove fuels with hand tools. If water is available either naturally or from engines, it will be used with portable pumps and hoses as another cooling agent. Sawyers may begin falling dead or burning trees to control the ember shower and enhance firefighter safety. Roads will be assessed to determine their value as future access points to the fire ground. Dip sites may be established to support the helicopter bucket operations and if need be, a helibase and fire camp established..

Working Together

The NPS has interagency agreements that ensure that firefighters from outside a park can be called upon as needed. The resources could be from other Federal agencies, surrounding states, or local county resources. In addition, contractors may be dispatched to help, and in extreme cases the military or international resources from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico or other countries may become involved.