Virginia Success Story: Night Riders

While Mother Nature rests, fire crews go to work

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Fighting a wildfire at night in late winter is sweaty work, until the crew expertly does its job and robs itself of the heat source. It’s February and it’s dark, the crew can be on the side of a Virginia mountain tamping out the last embers. Suddenly, the fire is out, and they are sweat-soaked in their gear. It is a scramble back to base. The crew is wet and temperatures have dipped below freezing.

All in all, though, fighting fires under the stars is sound strategy for the Virginians, give or take a chill.

In Virginia in late winter and early spring, dry cold fronts will move through and winds can whip up a wildfire from 2 in the afternoon until sunset around 5:15 p.m. The crews were fighting 160 of these fires on February 19, 2010, the ubiquitous Black Friday every fire team seems to have a story about. The Virginia crews welcomed the dark that day while fighting more fires than usual, even if it meant their sweat would turn cold, and they would be cold.

“The cold front finally passes, the winds settle down, temperatures dip to 20,” said John Miller,Virginia Image 2 the director of fire and emergency response for the Virginia Department of Forestry. “You can put the fire out so effectively, but you can find yourself sweating like the dickens because you have been fighting the fire as hard as you can go. Suddenly it is 20 degrees. You can get cold.”

A little chill for a firefighter is a fair tradeoff for extinguishing a destructive wildfire. Miller said attacking a blaze at night is much more preferable to Virginia crews than letting it go because of darkness. It is harder to deal with it in the morning. In February, 2008, Miller said there were 300 wildfires around Virginia because of one of those dry cold fronts. By evening, the fires were mostly under control.

“We actively suppress fires at night,” Miller said. “Some of the federal agencies have tended to get away from fighting fire at night from the standpoint that it is not safe for firefighters. I would disagree with that. We can attack a fire at night when the humidity has increased. Basically, the weather is in our favor at night in terms of fire suppression.”

Miller said he occasionally needles federal fire officials, telling them, “Let me introduce you to head lamps.”

“They are taking a pretty major tool out of their arsenal to go in and attack a fire at a time when it’s easiest to attack at night,” Miller said. “We are not walking around out there in the dark. They (head lamps) can run 12-18 hours and illuminate 50 yards, 100 yards plus with high power. You multiply that by 10-15 people each with head lamps on it’s like working in the day time. There is really no limitation at night, just a few extra safety considerations that need to be in place.”

The biggest challenge at night is “a snag,” a tree that burns through and falls. The key is to make an extra effort looking for environmental hazards, like snags, and rolling rocks. It takes a heightened level of awareness to fight a fire at night, but Miller insists fighting a fire at night is sound strategy for two reasons.

One, you never know what the next day will bring with weather, which is a wild card for wildfires. Wind? High humidity? It can circle back on you.

“If you don’t work on it that night it is going to continue to burn,” he said. “The next morning you go in there to work on it, but you are going to be working on it during a period when it is increasing in activity. Our goal is to put it out. The weather may be working against us the next day.”

The other reason for a night time attack is to use the day time to prepare a fire line and then execute a plan at night when conditions are more favorable.

“Night time may be the only time we can practically use a “burn out operation” or where we use fire to burn out our control lines to make them wider before the approaching fire gets to you,” Miller said. “It’s really tough on a bad fire day—high winds, low humidity—if we need to burn out a line because even a back fire can jump our line.

“We will prepare fire lines because we know once night gets here things are going to calm down enough to where we can back fire a line. Suddenly you have burned out the fuel. It’s going to go out.”

The aggressive tactics in Virginia are a necessity, Miller said, because so much sprawl has come out of the eastern cities and towns. This is not the west with its vast forestlands. Structures are close by, so Virginia crews leap into action. The DOF is trying to protect 15.8 million acres of forestland and manage 22 state forests.

“Our plan of action in Virginia is we just want to put that fire out in an effort to prevent that fire from being a bigger problem, more acres burning and additional threats to homes,” Miller said. “That’s a little different from some of the federal agency fire control. My personal opinion is that the federal response has shifted too far from initial attack to large fire management.

“Our goal is to be done with it.”

Miller said the increasing Wildland Urban Interface in the southeastern states makes it difficult to manage a fire from environmental benefit because that fire is immediately impacting homes. There is certainly a need to manage fires, but the planned burns are fewer and fewer because populations are shifting.

“If your goal is land management focused, or fire management focused, you say ‘hold up a minute we don’t want to put this out too fast’...there are some benefits from fire to the forest,” Miller said. “The problem with that is, especially in the eastern U.S. and southeastern U.S. there’s just so many homes in the wildland urban interface now.”

Virginia certainly recognizes and encourages the use of beneficial fire in the state’s forests for the ecological benefits that fire provides and the VDOF promotes the benefits of prescribed fire under controlled conditions. “It is sort of a good fire/bad fire situation, we encourage good fire whenever possible, and we suppress bad fire as aggressively as we can safely manage.”

“Any effort that delays initial attack you are really creating more of a problem for yourself of having a larger, more expensive, more damaging wildfire,” Miller said.

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