South Carolina Success Story: Structural Firefighters Take a Walk in the Woods

Skillset exchange with local fire departments focuses on increasing wildfire response

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South Carolina Image 2When it comes to the structural firefighter and the wildland firefighter, the only common denominator between them is courage. Most everything else is different when it comes to putting out a fire.

The structural firefighter could be fighting a blaze in the center hall of a multi-story apartment building with communications muffled, and vision obscured. Their job is minutes to hours.

The wildland firefighter has to deal with uncontrolled humidity, wind, and everything Mother Nature can throw at them. Their task stretches days to weeks.

Thrust the structural firefighter into an unfamiliar environment in the wildland and they can be stripped of their safety nets, and their fallback plans. That’s why the state of South Carolina has promoted wildland training for structural firefighters. There are two courses offered and, no doubt, they have saved lives and property.

Consider this statistic: 25 percent of the runs for South Carolina fire departments are for wildland fires. One in four times the alarm sounds, the men and women who are accustomed to windless hallways could be in a windstorm of embers.

“It would be easy, and it’s happened before, to approach a wildfire with the structural sort of mind frame and get yourself in a bad position,” said Darryl Jones, the Forest Protection Chief for the South Carolina Forestry Commission. “That’s what we don’t want to happen.

“We bring bulldozers and hand crews and other equipment. They bring water and their expertise. So we need to make sure they understand what we’re doing on the ground, and that we need to understand what their limitations and abilities are that can help us.”

The two-day course offered for the city/town firefighters is Wildland Firefighting for Structural Firefighters.

The one-day course deals with wildland urban interface for structural firefighters, you know, the field on the edge of town that can catch fire and lick flames against City Hall.

“What we don’t want to happen is a structural firefighter, a volunteer largely in South Carolina, to get a call to a wildfire and commit and be unprepared and not have the appropriate knowledge to address that wildfire safely,” Jones said.

The training program for structural firefighters has schooled 800-1,000 firefighters a year, Jones said. The good news is that firefighters from urban areas are seeking the extra knowledge. It is not a mandate coming from the top down, which means the buy-in is genuine.

The structural firefighters are given complex scenarios in the course and tasked with the safe execution. The goal, Jones said, is to force the firefighters into a decision-making mode.

“The fire environment for us—the weather, the fuels that you are in, the topography—all that makes a huge difference,” Jones said. “In a structural fire the humidity goes down outside, but it really doesn’t affect the way you fight the fire. For us, the relative humidity going from 25 to 15 percent is a dramatic difference in fire behavior. There is a chance of spotting, and a chance of increased fire intensity.

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“So a large part is getting them to approach a wildfire differently than they would a structure fire. Structure fire stays in one place, but our fire may shift 180 degrees and the houses that you thought were in a line of fire may not be anymore because the fire has moved.”

Recognizing the effects of wind, temperature, humidity, the topography, how fires behave differently running up a slope and down, and the type of fuels is all part of the training for structural firefighters.

Jones said he has seen fire departments not accustomed to wildland fire park an expensive fire engine in the middle of a field trying to catch a grass fire. It can lead to disaster because dried out grassy fields can ignite and spread quickly with wind.

The better plan may be to wait for the fire to get to the woods where there is shade, and cool, and less wind, and flames go from high to low.

They want to go put the fire out, but we may decide not to engage, we wait until the fire burns to the road, or we go somewhere ahead of it and put in fire breaks and burn off, basically fight fire with fire,” said Jones, who spent a month in California in 2018 battling the disastrous fires there.

“If you chase the fire in some places, and you’re not aware, you can quickly surround yourself with fuel and you have no safe place to go. That is a cornerstone for us. If I’m going to move 20 feet, I am reevaluating my safety zone and my route to get to it to make sure I still have a path that I can reach that’s legitimate.”

Jones said he has seen a difference in the mindset of structural firefighters around the state since the training went into full swing five years ago.

“We are seeing when we are showing up at fires they are recognizing ‘hey, we don’t need to chase the fire, we’re going to wait for the forestry guys’,” Jones said. “We’re going to stay here with the houses and do structure protection.”

The course is not just a safety net for structural firefighters, it is building capacity into the system. In 2016, the Pinnacle Mountain Fire on the South Carolina/North Carolina border burned over 9,000 acres. Jones said structural fire fighters from departments around the state rushed in to help. They were capable because they had been trained for the wildland fire.

Jones said the structural firefighters bring a lot to the table. He admires their organization and devotion to their communities.

“Their hearts and souls are for their neighbors and where they live,” he said.

The partnership means a better protected state, from the timber in the forests to the wood in finished buildings.

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