Having worked for many years in both land management and the fire and rescue service sectors, I have seen many changes and improvements in the way we work and in the health, safety and welfare particularly of firefighters. I have also noted an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires here in the UK. My concern is that our knowledge and skills in managing wildfires is not improving at the same pace and that we may be putting the public, land managers and firefighters at risk of harm.
I attended my first wildfire in a cork helmet, woollen tunic, plastic leggings and wellington boots. I was armed with a fire beater constructed from a rubber pad bolted to an 8ft wooden pole. If we were lucky, we would be able to get close enough to apply water via a hose reel. I had no specific training in wildfires and simply did whatever other more experienced colleagues were doing. That was 38 years ago and, in essence, for most UK and European firefighters, nothing much has changed. The clothing, or personal protective equipment (PPE), has moved on. It is now all fabric, probably heavier and certainly hotter to wear. This is great for structural fires but not so good for wildfires. Helmets, boots and gloves have all improved in one way or another. All of the improvements have focused on making firefighters safer in structural fires and have been very successful. I will come back to PPE for wildfires later.
The tactics and training for wildfires are possibly of most concern to me. The world has learnt a great deal about managing wildfires over the 38 years, but many firefighters still have to beat fires out or apply water from structural fire appliances wearing structural PPE. Very few agencies have invested in learning new skills or in specialist equipment and techniques. Fundamental to all of this is research, knowledge exchange and training.
Research helps us to understand how the fuels burn and under what conditions. It helps us to understand how the human body reacts to fighting wildfires in different conditions wearing different types of PPE. It helps us to understand what hydration and nutrition is required and how long rest breaks should be. It helps us to discover more efficient ways to manage or extinguish wildfires and many other valuable lessons.
Knowledge exchange helps us to learn from others. Some countries have been managing wildfires for a long time. Some indigenous people have been doing it for millennia. It is not all about new technologies, materials or equipment. Some lessons learned by colleagues have been expensive, painful or tragic. We must acquire knowledge from as many sources as possible, then apply the most appropriate lessons to our own circumstances.
Training is required to enable us to pass on the knowledge and skills gained from the research and knowledge exchange. We need structured training to international standards in order that we can safely deal with the challenges ahead. Why to international standards? Because this allows us to integrate with international partners and to work with and learn from colleagues around the world.
I have been fortunate enough to have worked in a number of different parts of the world and have faced different challenges in each. The obvious ones such as language can be addressed locally but will always be difficult. Often, each territory will have its own standards for training or PPE. Sometimes it’s easy to do some local training to enable safe integration with local crews. Normally PPE can be borrowed to ensure that local standards are adhered to. Sometimes, this actually means wearing PPE to a lesser standard than in your own country. This is a risk that you have to weigh up for yourself and sometimes there can be a degree of negotiation to enable you to wear your higher-specification PPE. I like to use local tools, techniques and PPE whenever possible, because I travel to learn, not to preach. Of course, once I have taken part and experienced local fire management, I can share my own knowledge and skills. But the most important part of any shared experience is to listen and observe; understand the local constraints and issues before proffering a solution. I have often found that I gain far more than I can offer in any case.
When travelling to learn, international standards are less important. There is time to negotiate what you can do and the circumstances when you will do those things. It is when you are travelling to assist with an ongoing emergency that international standards are most useful. Colleagues can call for help in the knowledge that responding crews will be able to integrate with local crews, whether that be in direct firefighting or simply understanding and integrating within the incident command system being used by the host nation. International standards address the basics of certain tasks and in themselves, help to address any language barriers. As a wildland firefighter, you can ‘cut line’ in any language.
My experiences in places such as California and South Africa have taught me important lessons such as being able to recognise my personal limitations and the realistic expectations for the outcome. As individuals we need to know when we have reached the limits of our physical ability and our mental capacity to deal with what is in front of us. To know when to ask for help. I have learnt that some wildfires can be hit hard and fast with a skilled workforce to bring them to a swift conclusion, but there are also some wildfires that will not concede to firefighting. We sometimes need to step back and consider how we are going to manage the fire rather than fight it. In all cases we have to consider how we can preserve human life, protect homes and infrastructure and to mitigate environmental harm. We should also consider the potential benefits from managing a wildfire as opposed to fighting it.
It is time to approach wildfires differently. Climate change is having an impact globally. New areas are starting to burn; many areas are burning more frequently and with greater intensity. There are many other factors involved such as land-management changes and even wildfire suppression. We need to look for a more holistic approach to this growing problem. In recent years, I have seen a steady growth in the intensity, severity and frequency of significant wildfires in the UK. This has included Saddleworth Moor in 2018 and this year I have attended both Wareham Forest in Dorset and Chobham Common in Surrey. All three fires have lasted for several days or weeks, they have all required a multi-agency response and seen the use of techniques including helicopters, bulldozers and tactical fire. These techniques were mostly absent from the UK until recently and are now becoming commonplace.
If we consider structural fires for a moment. They all happen within a set of constraints: walls forming compartments under a roof. The size and construction can vary greatly, but ultimately, they are all made up of boxes full of fuel. Wildfires also work within a set of constraints, but these are very different. Firstly, we need to forget the walls and literally think outside of the box. Wildfire constraints include the weather, topography and availability of fuel. In some cases, human intervention makes little or no impact on the final fire size, it was already determined by the landscape, fuel and weather. Unlike structural fires, wildfires can be tackled directly by firefighting or indirectly by fuel management. Some are best left, while others have a life risk and an urgent need for suppression. Large wildfires can be very complex and will require a wide range of skills and techniques to successfully manage them, but even small wildfires can be destructive and dangerous if underestimated or if tackled by untrained personnel.
Having seen and experienced all of the above, I’m convinced that we require user-led research to help us make the most of past lessons and future challenges. Wildfire PPE is a good example. I have worn different types of PPE around the world. Some of it has been very simple and cost effective. In some cases, it has used complex fibres and technologies and been very expensive. In many cases it has not been particularly comfortable to wear and has often been ‘modified’ by firefighters to make it fit for purpose. Of course, I cannot condone the modification of PPE because it may well adversely affect its performance. What we should be doing is ensuring that the end users are involved in the development of PPE. I stated earlier that I started my career in a woollen tunic. Ironically, the latest wildfire PPE that I have been using and testing is also wool based. I have worn many technical, man-made, wicking base layers over the years and I’m now wearing merino wool base layers because they simply outperform anything else that I have tried.
I am currently involved in two areas of research at the University of Exeter wildFIRE Lab. We are part of a National Environmental Research Council (NERC) funded research consortium investigating a UK Fire Danger Rating System (UKFDRS). At the wildFIRE Lab, our focus is on the ignitability and flammability of UK fuels. It is hoped that this project will lead to the creation of a UKFDRS that will be adopted nationally to better inform the public, land managers and emergency responders of wildfire conditions. I am also investigating the physiological impacts of PPE on firefighters. It is hoped that we will gain a better understanding of how the human body reacts to climatic conditions in different types of PPE and base layers. This should lead to improved firefighter safety and welfare at incidents.
We shouldn’t always discard old technologies in favour of new alternatives. We shouldn’t discard traditional ‘indigenous’ methods just because they are old. We should carefully consider the often painful past lessons and evolve as we move forward. We should embrace new learning and research and communicate our findings. The most important thing is that we mustn’t become complacent and just stand still. There is much to learn and the wildfire environment is moving on. We need to keep up at the very least.
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