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Recently we looked at where rural fire departments get water for structure fires. It’s not easy to come up with 300 to 500 gallons per minute when you’re far from hydrants. Now imagine that the footprint of a fire is stretched out across 40 acres of corn stubble, 80 acres of woods, a whole forest littered with logging slash, or dry grassland as far as the eye can see.
In rural areas, access to water for fighting fires is almost always a challenge. But the conversation about wildfire is amplified now. Large fires are burning in 12 states. Social media is filled with images that call to mind the burning of the Pridelands in The Lion King. There are even rumors that our current fire situation is actually a work of fiction, too. That Antifa is the new Uncle Scar. In the next remake, will they have Nala witness the start of the fire at a gender reveal party? If only we had a little Industrial Light and Magic to CGI-up some rain for the drought-ridden West. Because it’s starting to feel like it would take ark-level precipitation to suppress those fires.
But traditionally, water isn’t the primary tool for wildland fire suppression. It’s certainly an important component. And the water content of vegetation (fuel) certainly plays a role in how easily wildfires start and spread. And firefighters definitely pray for a timely cloudburst, and for the rise in relative humidity that often comes as daylight fades. But that’s while they’re busy working to deprive fire of three critical elements — fuel, heat and oxygen.
They do that primarily with hand tools and heavy equipment. Where the terrain allows, a bulldozer can cut or scrape a fire line down to mineral soil. That helps contain or control where fire can travel, or at least slow the fire’s heat and growth. Wildland firefighters on foot set controlled fires to deprive wildfire of fresh fuel. They use rakes and other hand tools to expose unburned fuel and help dissipate heat.
But they can’t shut off oxygen, the third thing fire needs to thrive. So the silent prayers of people working on a fire line tend to drift away from rain and toward the wind. Wind awareness falls under Item 1 in the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders: Keep informed on fire weather conditions and forecasts.
Recent fires in Oregon, for example, were whipped by a historic wind event on September 7 where 25- to 50-mile-per-hour winds toppled trees and took down power lines. Wind fans any spark or ember, and that’s important whether a wildfire is less than an acre or large enough to create its own weather. Go ahead and ask a bunch of rural volunteer firefighters which elemental superpower they would choose: I bet they choose the power to control wind.
That doesn’t mean water isn’t important. But a pint’s a pound the world around: In other words, water is heavy. And it’s never right where we need it when we need it. So firefighters in rural areas learn to assume water will be in short supply for who knows how long, and to use it sparingly and with gratitude.
Have you ever put out a campfire? You’ve probably heard that the preferred method is “drown, stir and feel”: Drown with water then stir to wet any remaining embers and ash while mixing in some dirt to fully smother the fire. It’s not out until you feel no heat on your bare hand.
Now let’s assume it’s not your campfire because you wouldn’t build one in the first place if you didn’t have enough water to douse it completely. All you have in this scenario is one small bottle of water. That amount is not very effective until after you remove fuel and dissipate heat. Even if you had a bucket of water to dump on an active fire, it might disrupt the availability of oxygen (smother) and dissipate heat — for a time. But it takes a big bucket to drench every last ember that could flare up, given a chance. And the weight of that water when dropped from above can push fuel and embers outside the original footprint of a campfire, where more oxygen and new fuel might be available. So if the water available for extinguishing that campfire is limited to one bottle, you might want to save that until you have removed fuel and mixed in dirt and the fire is mostly out. Then you can stir up the ashes to expose the remaining embers and douse them.
Now multiply that situation into a wildland fire, where water has to be moved from a distant source to an area that may or may not be accessible to equipment carrying all that weight. A blitz attack — hitting a body of fire with an overwhelming amount of water — can knock it down quickly. But that requires access to a lot of water. And down doesn’t necessarily mean out.
Many rural fire departments have brush trucks that are better suited to narrow fire lanes and off-road terrain than standard fire engines and water tenders. A Type 6 brush truck might carry 150 to 500 gallons of water and be able to pump 50 to 100 gallons per minute. They probably carry portable pumps to deploy in any available water source. They might carry foam or water additives that increase the fire suppression effectiveness of available water. And they carry different types of nozzles: Straight stream nozzles knock down flames but use water faster than, say, fog/spray nozzles. A brush truck might keep a short line with a fog nozzle charged just to protect the apparatus on a retreat. And, of course, those brush trucks can help carry firefighters away from a drop zone if helicopters and air tankers are called in to drop water or fire retardant.
But even then, fire may not be completely extinguished, especially in areas with a heavy fuel load. So much of the work falls to firefighters on the ground working with hand tools, in tandem with heavy equipment and in places where a bulldozer can’t go. Those firefighters might carry a 50-pound backpack-style water bladder — the lighter, modern version of what older firefighters called “piss cans.” They use that water sparingly, to cool tools and embers.
Because in rural areas you can assume a water relay is never just around the corner.
Donna Kallner is a member of the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department in rural northern Wisconsin.