Q&A: Fighting fire in the ever-changing wildland/urban interface

Two chiefs who serve in interface areas address the unique training, planning and operational efforts related to WUI fires


Wildland/urban interface (WUI) fires are not a new occurrence in the fire service; however, with the enormity and devastation of these fires in recent years, fire chiefs are seeing a heightened awareness of the fires’ power – and reach.

Mark Novak, fire chief of Vail (Colorado) Fire and Emergency Services, underscored that one of the primary roles of fire chiefs is preparing for a wide variety of emergencies, including wildland fires, even in areas without an extensive history of wildland fires.

Craig Daugherty, fire chief of the San Juan County (N.M.) Fire Department, echoed this sentiment, and explained how the changing fire environment has fueled the WUI danger: “Before Europeans were here, wildland fires  burned across the landscape, performing a natural role of cleaning up the fuels. We’ve interrupted  that process because now there's a lot more people who live in interface areas. That natural process of large-scale fire cleaning the forests hasn't occurred now for many years – over 100 years in some places – so you've got an unnatural amount of fuel loading. When you couple that with homes  intermixed in there,  it's a recipe for disaster.”

Mark Novak, fire chief of Vail (Colorado) Fire and Emergency Services, and Craig Daugherty, fire chief of the San Juan County (N.M.) Fire Department.
Mark Novak, fire chief of Vail (Colorado) Fire and Emergency Services, and Craig Daugherty, fire chief of the San Juan County (N.M.) Fire Department.

Novak and Daugherty both sit on the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Wildland Fire Policy Committee, and lead departments in WUI areas.

Daugherty shared that one message that the committee is constantly preaching is that wildland fire historically has happened all across the country, not just in the West. “There is no place immune from wildland fire.”

Fire Chief spoke with Daugherty and Novak about fighting fire in the ever-changing WUI, and what chiefs need to know about the planning, training, operations and mitigation efforts related to WUI fires in their communities – and beyond.

Does an incident like the Tubbs Fire in Santa Rosa, California, change your perspective on WUI fires, notably that they can happen in such a variety of areas?

Chief Novak: The Tubbs Fire, as well as the other catastrophic WUI fires that occurred since then, have served as a wake-up call for even the most seasoned wildland firefighter. Not only was the loss of life shocking, but so was the devastation that occurred in communities such as Coffey Park, which were not traditionally considered to be in the WUI.

This incident should not only be alarming to other communities with a known WUI, it should cause every fire chief to reevaluate their community and ask, “Could this happen in my community?” Although the Tubbs Fire was relatively large, it is important to note that much of the damage was due to structure-to-structure ignition, which can occur with even the smallest outdoor fire.

Chief Daugherty: When you see these urban conflagrations, it’s just amazing to me to think about the force that is involved. You look at some of the hardened structures in the communities. You see the K-Marts burning down in the middle of town and McDonald's. Those structures have defensible space, so it  changes your perspective as a fire chief to start looking at some other ways of doing business.

How does your department train for WUI incidents?

Chief Novak: We conduct WUI-specific training each year. This training not only reinforces strategies and tactics specific to WUI fires but also focuses on using non-traditional resources, such as Type I engines, to be effective in the WUI. Historically, many of our members assumed that a wildland apparatus was necessary to be effective in the interface. Through training and a little creative thinking, our members now understand how to be effective in the interface using Type I engines. Our ongoing WUI training incorporates activities at the task, tactic and strategic level.

Further, over the past several years, we have incorporated traditional wildland classes into our promotional requirements for each rank. We have found that this not only increases our members’ confidence operating in the WUI, but that many of these classes include information and skills that are beneficial in structural firefighting.

We also staff a seasonal wildland firefighter program that greatly increases our initial attack, public education, and mitigation capacity.

Chief Daugherty: We put a particularly high amount of emphasis on the WUI side of wildland firefighting because we're in that fight almost every time we get an alarm for wildland – there are structures threatened.

Our cadets get all the basic wildland fire training. We encourage our folks to go to those next-level trainings in ICS and NWCG, and we have quite a few of our folks who have attained that higher level of training.

We also do a lot of ICS training and tactical-type training where we do scenario-based tactical exercises. A lot of them are based around a sand table, but we will emulate an expanding incident in a WUI area and try to get that stress inoculation that comes with these types of incidents. Obviously, you can never in a training emulate that exactly, but we try to throw a lot of stuff at them and teach them to be thinking firefighters.

How does your department work with mutual-aid departments or other agencies to prepare for WUI incidents?

Chief Novak: We are working to improve regional coordination. These efforts include reducing delays in deploying mutual-aid resources and increasing preparedness during periods of high fire danger. We have also developed pre-incident plans and maps of our WUI.

Chief Daugherty: We're very active in the national mutual-aid system, so we send our folks out. That experience is huge. They go out and get to experience these large fires and large incidents with management teams, so they bring back that knowledge. They are better prepared when something happens here locally.

We work closely with federal and state partners and other local departments to ensure that we have a robust mutual-aid system for an extended attack resource pool, because these fires can obviously overwhelm a local jurisdiction and sometimes multiple local jurisdictions. Even your typical mutual-aid partners may be in the same fight you are with a fast-spreading wildland incident that's involving multiple jurisdictions, so a lot of times you have to look past that initial bubble of resources to the next level and make sure you have those agreements in place. A lot of times that involves going through the state land management agencies or federal land management agencies, but I think it's important to remind folks that those agreements must be done well in advance. The middle of the fight is not the time to start trying to figure that out, so the preparation side is huge.

And on this note, it’s important for departments to consider specialty tools, like the aircraft that are used in some of these situations. These big-ticket items are very expensive but also sometimes very valuable in a firefight. I have to go through a land management agency to get those kinds of tools in my arsenal.

Who do you need to have on your contact list to start ordering those tools, how do you do that, and what’s the process? Which land management agencies, federal or state, do you have that agreement with, to make sure they can carry that bill because it’s very expensive? Usually, state and federal governments are the ones that can absorb those kinds of costs, as local governments don’t always have that ability.

A firefighter walks next to an engine as crews make a stand in front of an advancing wildfire in a residential neighborhood Friday, Nov. 9, 2018, in West Hills, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
A firefighter walks next to an engine as crews make a stand in front of an advancing wildfire in a residential neighborhood Friday, Nov. 9, 2018, in West Hills, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

How do you work with the community to prepare for WUI incidents?

Chief Novak: We have adopted the Fire Adapted Communities approach. As such, our efforts include a wide variety of initiatives.

  • Wildfire mitigation: We seek to create fuel breaks around our community and support the efforts of homeowners to create defensible space by providing free curbside chipping.
  • Community education: This effort is based upon the Ready, Set, Go program. In addition, we conduct multi-disciplinary evacuation exercises that include scenarios requiring evacuation of those with functional needs and those without transportation.
  • Notification systems: Recent WUI fires have demonstrated limitations with the public notification systems most communities depend on. We are currently researching alternative public notification systems.
  • Continuity planning: As a community that is very dependent upon tourism, we have placed a high importance on this. We also work with our business community and our municipality to encourage and facilitate continuity of operations planning and training.

Chief Daugherty: We do a lot of education with our homeowners and try to get them to voluntarily do defensible space work around their homes and really focus on the prevention education piece as well.

What are the unique safety considerations for WUI fires?

Chief Novak: WUI incidents are greatly complicated by the addition of civilians. As firefighters, we are programmed to save lives and property. These factors combine to create a sense of urgency that may not be present in a traditional wildland fire. When urgency intersects with the limited situational awareness that can occur during a rapidly evolving WUI fire, the risk to firefighters increases greatly. 

It is imperative that firefighters take the time to build situational awareness and exercise good risk management regardless of how chaotic a WUI fire may seem during the initial phases.

Chief Daugherty: We try to teach firefighters to have that overall situational awareness, make sure that you're thinking through all the hazards that are happening, because in this environment, you have so much going on. You've got multiple structures burning, you've got the spreading wildland component you're dealing with, along with all the stuff we call yard debris – that’s everything in between the houses and the wildland, such as propane tanks, boats, cars, RVs, sheds full of all kinds of stuff, including small propane tanks, hazardous materials, paints, fuels, and all of these can be involved, oftentimes, all at the same time.

Firefighters know the hazards when they are each individualized. If they've got a structure fire, they know they have the hazards associated with the typical structure fire – collapse, making sure the power is off, flashover – but now you've added a wildland component, which has all of its own safety issues. Then, you start throwing in car fires and boat fires and all of the toxins that are in the air and the hazardous material. It's so unique in this environment on the safety side of it.

Do you focus on compartmentalizing and handling each hazard as its own problem, or are you asking firefighters to kind of step back and look at it as a total event?

Chief Daugherty: Stepping back and seeing it as more of a total event. We try to challenge firefighters not to compartmentalize early on. We try to tell them to look at that bigger picture. Obviously, there's a point where you have to start to compartmentalize.

That's one of the unique things about the WUI environment: It changes the whole way that we as firefighters are taught and how we think. We're there to save people, their belongings, save stuff, and in this environment, a lot of times in order to save more, you've actually got to sacrifice some. You get to the point where you actually write off structures. It's hard for them to let go of a structure that they've been engaged at, knowing that it's going to burn to the ground, because it's not in our mindset to step away from something. Once we get on something, we want to finish our task. In this environment, it's often hard to teach folks to say, “OK, that structure is already halfway involved. Save the next 10 structures, and we're basically going to have to let that one burn.”

How can traditionally urban-area departments adapt to think more about wildland considerations?

Chief Novak: You do not necessarily need wildland apparatus to be effective in many wildland situations. What is important is that the firefighters are adaptive and bring a can-do attitude when planning for and responding to WUI fires. Many urban fire departments already respond to some form of WUI fire; they may call it an outdoor fire, a field fire or some other name. Preparing for WUI fires begins with assessing current training and equipment and determining what it will take to operate safely in the interface. Fortunately, the equipment that is on most fire engines can be effective in WUI operations.

There are several wildland classes available online, including S-130 (Wildland Firefighter Training) and S-190 (Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior).

Additionally, there are several inexpensive guides that can be provided to crews to help them prepare for a WUI fire. The Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG) is inexpensive enough to provide one for every firefighter. The FIRESCOPE Field Operations Guide (FOG) is another great inexpensive resource that can be placed on every fire engine.

Chief Daugherty: Traditionally urban departments are used to having a water source or used to having a hydrant system, so they have a tendency to hook onto that hydrant and have big water, but with that, they have a tendency to get sucked into that compartmentalization where they start to really focus in on one structure instead of seeing that bigger picture.

It can be hard for them to get away from what they're so used to – tying into a hydrant and fighting fire. A lot of times a more mobile attack in this environment is more effective – being able to be mobile and jump from structure to structure where there may be a deck or wooden fence on fire that takes a little bit of water or a chainsaw to cut away from the house. All these things are basically a fuel path into the structure.

In my command role, I'm always trying to make sure folks don't get too tied in on that hydrant, because then they become less mobile.

Additionally, I’ve seen several times in my career traveling around the country that hydrant infrastructure has failed on us. For example, we've had electricity go out, so all the water pumps went out. I was in Los Alamos when the Cerro Grande burned into town. They had a lot of the urban departments there, and they had 5-inch stretched lines down the streets and water spraying everywhere, and, all of a sudden, everybody's water went dry. What happened was the electricity went down and they didn't have a backup power system for the pumping system, so they drained 80,000-gallon water tanks that supplied the city of Los Alamos. Then, at that point, there was no water and the urban firefighters were at a loss because they didn't know how to draft with their trucks.

On the flip side, how can traditionally rural departments adapt to think more about WUI/urban considerations when structure density increases?

Chief Novak: Density of structures does not mean that you need urban apparatus. Ultimately, structure defense is based upon basic wildland tactics and tasks, which include extinguishing embers and spot fires and providing thorough mop-up around homes. Tactical patrol is also a crucial activity to prevent further losses, and this is easily accomplished with almost any type of apparatus.

In communities where the homes are close together, it is important to remember that once a few homes ignite, the fuel load of the houses may greatly exceed that of the surrounding vegetation and will create a tremendous amount of embers once ignited. This can rapidly lead to a fire that more closely resembles a conflagration than a wildland fire. In this scenario, the best approach may be to find a location in which an “anchor and hold” tactic can be employed. This may require a reliable water source to be effective.

Chief Daugherty: I think the challenge for the rural departments is staffing. WUI has really grown in these rural areas, especially over the last 20 years, those rural areas are more suburban than they are anything now.

Rural departments have the chance to intercept some of this development before it gets to a critical threshold. This means, in the planning stages, being very proactive on the front side and making sure that the new developments that are being built have good access and egress, and that they have adequate water systems, which they may not have in some of their older developments.

Making sure people build hardened structures with defensible space and just overall better fire-resilient communities is important, too. I think that's the opportunity that a rural department with a lot of new WUI development has the ability to influence.

Also, it goes back to the mutual-aid concept – making sure you have robust mutual-aid agreements and, again, taking that next step out from your typical mutual-aid partners that might be just down the road who may be dealing with the same WUI challenge you are. You’re not going to get the help from them, so where is that next level of help coming from and are agreements in place?

What equipment and PPE do you use?

Chief Daugherty: We have specialized equipment and wildland engines. We have 23 stations in 10 fire districts, so all of them are carrying that specialized equipment.

We've invested in wildland PPE for all of our firefighters. We don't send our guys out in structural PPE in the wildland environment. We train our folks to wear their wildland gear to the wildland alarm. Almost all our alarms come in as a wildland fire with structures threatened. It's pretty rare that we just get a strictly wildland fire. So we have our folks put on their wildland gear, which is a lot lighter than the structure gear, and they bring their structure gear with them, so they can transition into that structure gear if homes are involved or if it turns into a structural firefight.  

What’s the role of fire chiefs in the political arena related to WUI fires?

Chief Novak: Advocacy for public safety is a fundamental responsibility of the fire chief. Although policy decisions are ultimately decided by elected officials, part of the fire chief’s duty in upholding the public trust is to use our knowledge and expertise to advocate for public safety. A chief who does not advocate for public safety is just an administrator. Even if advocacy does not result in immediate change, it is important to take a long view and understand that effecting change in the built environment and land use planning can take many years to reach the desired end-state. 

Chief Daugherty: Where it gets controversial is when you start to implement codes, usually in the retrofitting of older homes, after the fact stuff, making people harden their homes. I feel it’s our role to be a leader in that process. The challenge with that is not getting sucked into the political debate.

I think as fire chiefs, we do have a responsibility to be involved in those concepts and ideas and driving the basic premises that we’re here to help protect you, the community and avoid an urban conflagration. We’re trying to be proactive and help you help us save this community in a worst-case scenario. I think if we take that view, people have a tendency to look at us more as an expert than a politician.

What resources does the IAFC Wildland Fire Policy Committee have available for fire chiefs?

Chief Daugherty: We have put together the IAFC Wildland Urban Interface Chief’s Guide. It’s covers a little bit of everything, from agreements to case studies, frequency information, radio communication-type stuff. It’s got a lot of the stuff that fire chiefs deal with in the WUI. We put our heads together to come up with a guide for a fire chief that might not be as experienced in dealing with WUI issues.

Chief Novak: And although it is titled “Chief’s Guide,” there is great information that can be used by all ranks.

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