Utah firefighters battle wildfires, environmental effects

Jeff Chiu, AP Newsroom
A firefighter sprays a hose into a Keysight Technologies building in Santa Rosa, California, in this Oct. 9 file photo. Shiloh Crawmer, a Utah firefighter, spent 10 days in California helping fight the wildfires. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Utah firefighters aided California’s efforts to “fight fire with fire” while working together with local firefighting teams to douse portions of the widespread California wildfires still burning in late October.

The term “fight fire with fire” comes from wildland fighting, according to Utah firefighter Shiloh Crawmer.

Fighting fires isn’t as simple as throwing water on the flames. Taylor Olsen, a Utah firefighter, said water won’t even hit a fire that has 200 to 250-foot flames. It takes strategy to control and eliminate large-scale fires, especially wildfires, according to Crawmer.

Firefighting not only encompasses the process of fighting fires, but also understanding fire activity. What firefighters do while fighting a fire is largely dependent on fire activity, Crawmer said.

However, suppressing fires can harm the environment where fires are a natural part of the ecosystem, according to Olsen.

How to fight a wildfire

Crawmer has worked as a firefighter for two and a half years. He is on a wildland deployment team and recently helped fight the wildfires in Northern California.

“We were there for 10 days,” Crawmer said. “We put a firebreak (and) because of the trees and terrain, it had to at least be 20 feet wide.”

A firebreak is an actual line the firefighters dig to separate unburned fuel from the fire. Firefighters build a firebreak as a physical barrier to slow fires down, according to Olsen.

“Depending on the size of the fire, they’ll measure the flame lengths and what they expect (the fire) to do, and they’ll make a line accordingly,” said Brett Porter, a firefighter for Truckee Meadows Fire Protection District in Reno, Nevada.

Crawmer said he and his team took 100-foot sections of water hoses along the edge of the fire he was fighting in California. This hose is a supply line, or a supply hose with a smaller 1-inch attack hose that branches off to fight the fire, according to Crawmer.

Kent Porter/AP Newsroom
Jim Stites watches part of his neighborhood burn in Fountain Grove, California in this Oct. 9 file photo. Shiloh Crawmer said creating a firebreak helps control wildfires. (Kent Porter/The Press Democrat via AP, File)

Crawmer said the supply line his team worked on was just under two miles long. Each roll of hose weighs 11 pounds, and they each carried four to five rolls, plus their tools and backpack. Once the firefighters ran out of hoses, they’d hike back up and bring more hose down.

Firebreaks and supply lines are separate tactics for fighting fires, but Crawmer said they are often used together to eliminate fires.

“Depending on fire activity and other situations, (firefighters) are either a mile or two away from the fire,” Crawmer said, “But the first day I was within 20 feet of active fire the whole time.”

Firefighters will remove grass, trees and other fuel sources between the active fire and the firebreak in order to diminish the fire’s intensity as it approaches the break, according to Crawmer.

“We want the fire to come to us but not past us,” Crawmer said. “So you do everything you can to slow the fire and have those air drops — the tankards, the helicopters — that will drop retardant lines to make those fuels less combustible.”

There isn’t enough water access or time to get water there fast enough to extinguish such large wildland fires, Olsen said.

Adding homes to the mix adds more stress to the situation, according to Crawmer. At that point, he said, firefighters are fighting house fires in addition to wildland fires.

He said the Napa fire in California was especially worrisome because the houses were built in areas with plenty of fuel.

“There were enough fuels close by that the fire burned with such intensity that it got into houses, and then it intensifies and spreads to the next house,” Crawmer said.

Fire behavior is fairly dependent on temperature, wind patterns and climate, according to Crawmer.

“As the temperature goes down later in the day, the fire kinda slows down and it doesn’t pick up as much, or shouldn’t pick up as much,” Crawmer said. “What we experienced was the opposite.”

Crawmer said even though temperatures dropped, the fire continued to blaze with great intensity.

“(The fire) actually jumped that line that we’d worked on for a week. (The fire) took all of our hose and spread another half mile,” Crawmer said. “What we worked on over the last week, we had to do it again.”

Crawmer and the other California firefighters worked 16-hour days while fighting the wildfire in California. Crawmer said they would wake up at 6 a.m., eat breakfast, go to brief, head to the fire and wouldn’t return back to camp for dinner until 9 or 10 p.m. After sleeping for a few hours, they’d be back at it the next day.

Despite all the hard work Crawmer and other firefighters put into fighting the California fires, Olsen said fires actually play “a role in the ecosystem.”

Environmental effects of wildfires

Cindy Yamanaka/AP Newsroom
A wildfire moves closer to North Tustin homes along the 261 freeway in Tustin, California, in this Oct. 9 file photo. Sam St. Clair, an associate professor in plant biology at BYU, said understanding the role fire plays in an ecosystem is important. (Cindy Yamanaka/The Orange County Register via AP)

Depending on the type of ecosystem, fires can be crucial to an environment, according to BYU plant biology professor Sam St. Clair.

St. Clair said fires are really important to forest ecosystems because they eliminate invasive plant species and act as a purifying agent for ecosystems.

“We’ve suppressed fires in forests and so there are not enough fires typically in forests,” St. Clair said. “Forests tend to be healthier when you have fires more frequently.”

St. Clair said forest ecosystems need more frequent fire, but desert ecosystems need fewer fires. Desert ecosystems have historically seen fires every 200 to 400 years, but currently, desert fires happen about every 10 years, according to St. Clair.

Utah is a higher-elevation desert ecosystem, according to St. Clair.

St. Clair said desert fires have become more common because humans ignite fires and bring in new plant species. These species are called “invasions” and change how fires are spread.

The Uintah fire in September, burning around 619 acres of land in Weber County, and the Brian Head fire in June, burning nearly 72,000 acres of land in Southern Utah, are examples of how fires are happening more frequently in the Utah desert ecosystem.

“We understand really well from the science that has been done which communities require fire to be healthy, and which ones really have much less fire,” St. Clair said.

St. Clair said desert communities like Utah are negatively impacted by more frequent fires. Fires burn the root systems of plants and loose soil, then create dust storms. These dust storms can impact the air quality in the area.

St. Clair said these dust storms also make snow melt more quickly, eliminating the water supply in the area sooner than normal.

“We have fires that are burning in from our desert community into urban areas (and) burning houses because we’ve changed the planting communities in ways that will allow that to happen,” St. Clair said.

Understanding which systems burn and need to burn to be healthy can help in planning where to build houses in safe locations, according to St. Clair.

“We need to be really smart and probably not build housing developments in areas that we know are designed to burn and are healthy when they burn at more frequent intervals,” St. Clair said. “You really need to have a plan to protect your home.”

For more information about Utah fires, visit wildfiretoday.com.

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