While winter moisture is safely saturating the ground, some rural residents and rural firefighters from the Havre area got together to discuss wildland firefighting safety issues.
Don Pyrah, rural fire specialist for the Department of Natural Resources out of Lewistown, has been traveling the Hi-Line this winter giving the presentation "Firefighting for Your Neighbors," and Saturday he was at the Northern Agriculture Research Center south of Havre to conduct this talk about personal safety while fighting wildland fires.
"Neighbors go to neighbors," Pyrah said about rural residents' instincts to help each other despite danger, adding that this presentation was developed in response to the death in 2011 of a Kremlin farmer's daughter, who was helping fight a wildland fire.
Landowners and other people who respond to fight wildland fires are needed because rural fire departments are generally small and their equipment limited and these people can bring strength, skills and much-needed equipment, Pyrah said often throughout the four-hour presentation.
But, he also said, when fire is involved, it's especially important to think about safety first or risk becoming part of the problem.
The most basic thing people responding to a fire need to think about is their clothing.
Wildland firefighters are equipped with about $1,000 worth of specialty safety clothing and gear, said Pyrah, but the average person can improve their own safety, even without that investment, simply by choosing the right clothes from what they probably already own.
Clothes with all-natural fibers are essential. Synthetic materials melt at much lower temperatures than it takes for natural fibers to burn, so wearing cotton, wool or silk clothing is important, Pyrah said, and this includes undergarments which can fuse to the skin in high-heat conditions.
Leather boots with an 8-inch tall shaft work best to protect feet and ankles, he said, adding that many winter boots are made of rubber or other synthetic materials to make them waterproof, but those boots are dangerous in the high-heat conditions of a fire.
A discussion in the group, which included some veteran firefighters from the area, brought out points that even a screen-printed design on a cotton shirt, fancy metal bling on jeans and synthetic panels or nylon laces on leather boots can cause trouble. Other attendees pointed out that some major clothing brands like Wrangler and Carhartt make flame resistant clothing items like jeans and coats that sell in local stores. These clothes display "FR" on the tags.
"But I cannot stress enough the importance of wearing leather gloves," Pyrah said, relating several stories about people who came away otherwise unscathed in wildland fire situations, except for their hands which were unprotected and exposed to flame and heat. Hands, he added, are especially vulnerable because of their high percentage of skin surface area and the fact that they are used like tools and therefore put in harm's way.
Wildland firefighters have 28 basic rules of engagement, Pyrah said.
"Somebody paid the price for us to learn (these lessons)," he said, adding that all 28 of the lessons can be condensed into four points referred to as LCES, which stands for lookouts, communication, escape routes and safety zones.
A person working alone on a fire needs to take the time to act as a lookout, take the time to look up and around to take note of the terrain, weather, fire condition and direction, and any other changes or conditions that will affect safety, Pyrah said.
And if two or more people are working together, he said at least one person needs to be the lookout at all times.
Communication at a wildland fire, whether accomplished in person or over a radio or cellphone, helps coordinate the attack on the fire. It also helps keep everyone, especially the incident commander who is in charge of a large firefighting effort, aware of where people are fighting the fire or may be in danger, Pyrah said.
Escape routes and safety zones are generally talked about together, Pyrah said. While escape routes are unique to each fire and can change as the fire travels and location changes, the one constant is that the surest safety zone is "in the black," he said, where the fire has already burned.
Among the other topics — such as weather, fuel factors, fire behavior and how to attack a fire — covered in the presentation and discussion was the command structure among firefighters at a wildland fire.
The incident commander is established right away at all wildland fires, which often have skilled responders from many fire departments, other organizations and businesses, as well as area landowners and laborers, Pyrah said. The IC can and will delegate duties, but the ultimate responsibility for decisions and the safety of those helping to fight the fire lies with the IC.
"Personal accountability, for the IC, is a big deal," he said.
However, the IC can't keep people safe, make timely decisions or use personnel and equipment most effectively without knowing who has responded.
"Communication is the key," said Pyrah, adding, "don't just start where the fire is.
"Go to the first fire truck you see, ask for the incident commander," he said. Get hooked up with someone who has a radio and is in contact with the IC.
"Safety is paramount," Pyrah said.