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Improving firefighter safety

Wildland firefighting by its nature is inherently dangerous. There have been 699 wildland firefighters die in fire related accidents between 1910 and 1996 in the United States; 384 of those were directly related to fire entrapments. Wildland firefighters must consider all risks to themselves and others when approaching, suppressing, and managing wildland fire, and then take appropriate action to minimize those risks.

One of the critical decisions made by fire fighters on any wildland fire is the identification of suitable safety zones; areas where firefighters can safely wait for the fire to burn around them. The term “safety zone” first appears in official literature in the United States in the aftermath of the Inaja fire where 11 firefighters were killed and the United States Forest Service issued a report that highlighted the need for better training and recommended that all firefighters identify safety zones at all times when fighting fire. The United States Forest Service defines a safety zone as “a preplanned area of sufficient size and suitable location that is expected to protect fire personnel from known hazards without using fire shelters”. Safety zones should be available and accessible in the event that fire behavior or intensity increases suddenly making current suppression tactics unsafe.

Current efforts are focused on finalizing a new algorithm based on direct measurements of energy transport in laboratory and field experiments as well as modeling of energy transport using sophisticated combustion models. The results developed so far suggest that the currently developed and published physics based safety zone models are adequate for flames larger than 10 m but for shorter flames wind and slope have significant impacts on the energy and heating environment. The implications are that in some cases safety zones must be much larger than previously thought. This implies that adequate safety zones may require significant impact on the landscape or other mitigating measures must be taken to protect life.

Photo: experimental burn focused on quantifying the effect of slope on fire spread.
Modified: Dec 20, 2016

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