A firefighter sets a backfire

A firefighter sets a backfire earlier this as firefighters battled a number of large fires in California. Backfiring, they say, is one of the tools in their arsenal.

In discussing fires with residents around Trinity County, it’s usually just a moment or two before the subject of backburning or firing comes up. While some may find it a necessary part of wildland firefighting, others may criticize the process, each for a variety of reasons.

In a special update Friday posted on the Shasta Trinity National Forest Facebook Page, Team 5 officials gave a comprehensive explanation of the term “firing” as well as reasons it’s employed. Team 5 Incident Commander Alex McBath specifically noted that crews have been hearing rumors and questions about the process.

Incident Management Team 5 Information Office Nathan Judy said the team has employed a “full suppression strategy” from its start of the fire.

“That means we want to put this fire out,” he said. “We want this thing extinguished as quickly as we can but we have to do so safely.” He said in fighting the fire, personnel will use every tool at their disposal, including defensive firing tactics.

“We do not add fire to the landscape unless we have to,” he said.

Team 5 Fire Behavior Analyst Jeff Shelton opened his remarks by noting that crews only use firing when needed.

“It’s not a toy, it’s a tool. It’s something we are well-trained in, well-experienced in and we apply it to help us create black line [on fire maps],” he said. “Our goal, when we have a control line, is to build depth on that line. We want that line to be wide enough to defeat any fire that comes at that line, whether it’s from a spot in the interior or fire that’s running at that line.”

Roads, ridges and rivers are existing features crews use to create containment lines and build depth outward. The types of fire that test those lines are head fires, flanking fires and backing fires. Head fires are the most intense, he said, noting that they are usually running uphill or are pushed by wind. Flanking fires run across a slope while backing fires come down a slope.

“When we are establishing these control lines, obviously we would like to have backing fire that is at the control line or meets the control line,” he said. “Sometimes, that’s not possible.” He said crews will then use firing to add depth to the control line in order to create a place where fire will come to a stop.

He said all firing is part of a planned operation and crews never light more fire than they feel they can control. Timing, humidity, topography, winds and resources are all considered, he said.

“I just want you to understand — it is thought-out, it is methodical, and we are trying to build the depth to have this line go from red to black.”

It’s a tool

McBath said he wanted to explain how and why crews use firing as a tool on wildland fires.

“Hopefully it will answer some of the questions and dispel some of the rumors we have heard about our teams’ activities on the Monument fire,” McBath said.

From the Team 5 indent room, McBath used a large tabletop map to show where firing started along Corral Bottom Road near Big Bar, along the Pacific Gas and Electric Co. powerline.

“At that time, the fire had made significant runs up the canyon,” he said, “and came out of some steep topography into a road system. At that time, we made a plan, in relation of protection to Hyampom and to Burnt Ranch that included utilizing the 60, the 47 and the 16 roads from Corral Bottom all the way to Burnt Ranch.” He said the fire began backing along an east/west slope toward a roadway. He said that as the fire approached the roadway, firefighters incrementally fired along the road in sections.

“What that does in the long run is keep the fire from making a run at the road, where we can’t put people in front of the head fire,” he said, “or it takes a lot more resources to control it. We control the fire down to the piece that we are firing, so that we just walk along with the fire. At the very end, it pulls upslope away from our line.” He said ideally, the firing will meet the fire, giving it nothing more to burn, which also improves safety.  

“This is a safer condition than having the fire run at them in pieces and getting folks trapped inside of that,” he said. “It’s a lot safer for the firefighters when it’s a coordinated firing operation.”

McBath said firefighters then patrol the line to look for hot spots or places it may have crossed the line.

McBath explained that a similar tactic was used to encircle the community of Big Bar with black containment line. He said that as the fire surrounded the valley community firing was done to meet the fire and give fire personnel a safe area from which they could protect structures.

“If we hadn’t done that, the fire would have gone right into the community, at probably various times of the day, night, or even in the morning,” he said, noting that it would have likely created spots (fires) in the structures, leaving personnel scrambling to keep up.

Most recently, fire jumped Hyampom Road west of Hayfork and spread south and west.

“It grew about 13,000 acres over two days,” McBath said. “To combat that, we had folks in there trying to stop that activity, but because it was so hot, they had to back off. When they backed off, they backed off to the structures they were defending, and in doing so as the fire came down to them, they had line, hose, and other protection measures in place and they would fire off around the house, as they did in Big Bar, to save the structure.” McBath said the tactic works but sometimes firefighters will have to prep a house, leave and come back after the fire to put out any fires around it.

“That’s not what we’d like to do as a planned action,” he said.

Backcountry firing

In some areas where dozers cannot reach, or firefighters cannot build direct lines, an indirect attack may warrant firing in sections in an area where the fire is expected to reach. He said it brings the fires together in a manageable fashion.

“If we’re successful, it stops the fire,” he said.

Noting that smoke has been too thick for aircraft on most days, McBath said that on clear days ground and air crews work together to manage firing operations.

“The management of this whole fire is aggressive, full suppression,” he said, “and this team takes that very seriously. If it’s safe and we think we have the time we need to go direct on it, we will.”

McBath pointed to the black containment lines on the map of the entire 200,000+ acre Monument fire, saying every part of those lines had firing operations.

“That was not done for forest management,” he stressed. “That was done to suppress this fire and get a cold line so it’s no longer a threat.”

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