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By Bob Urban, Senior Manager, ACRT Services

*Editorial Note: The following article appeared in the July/August issue of the UAA Newsline.

Wildland and prairie fires are not just a West Coast phenomenon. These fires pose a risk that not only impact the traditionally viewed West Coast landscapes but landscapes from coast-to-coast. If the right conditions exist—from weather, humidity, and wind speeds to fuel load and ignition points—fire-related events can occur in any part of the country.

Looking back at the past five years, wildland and prairie fires were a real phenomenon everywhere, not just in California but in places like Alaska, Oklahoma, and Florida. In 2016, the largest fire-related event in the U.S. took place in Oklahoma, affecting more than 360,000 acres.

Most of the large fires that occurred in 2018 were located in Northern California, Southern Oregon, Northern Washington, and Northern Montana. But what’s interesting is that if you look between Virginia and Kentucky, several significant events occurred in 2018 that didn’t make the Top 20 chart.

2019 wasn’t as severe as 2018 in terms of fire-related events. We saw many of the typical culprits and places, but many events further east. Texas experienced several events, Oklahoma had a smattering throughout the state, Florida ranked on the list again, and so did the Kentucky-West Virginia border. Mississippi and Alabama were also included on the map.

So how do you prevent these widespread fires from occurring? Communication is the most powerful tool. The following are important, proactive measures that you can take:

  • See something, say something. Be aware of your surroundings.
  • Know who to contact and in the proper order. Call 911 first.
  • Personal safety is your first responsibility. Make sure you’re in a safe space before starting a communication chain.
  • Know your fire plan. These are similar to post-storm work plans and are often seen in fire-prone areas.
  • Follow instructions.
  • Check-in and check-out. Make sure someone knows your whereabouts before and after encountering any possible dangers.

Prepare a Fire Plan and Process

Fire plans and processes are usually similar to storm or hurricane plans. These documents address common hazards associated with each type of event and provide specific instructions regarding tasks and roles during those events. A fire plan is a living document—it should be reviewed yearly and employees should be regularly trained on its information.

You may notice that fire plans and processes emphasize safety. Why? It’s all about personal safety, crew safety, public safety, and the safety of the assets being worked around. Employees from entry-level to management positions should be trained on each organization’s fire plan, including fire prevention, emergency reaction, wildland fire safety basics, and equipment.

We must talk about how to safely navigate a high-fire risk environment by understanding how vehicles, our actions, our equipment, and the relationship between the vegetation and powerlines can all be potential ignition points for wildland fires. It is important to understand and remember that our job is not to fight the fires; our job is to prevent fires from starting in the first place.

Keep Preventative Tools Handy

In fire-prone areas, most field crews will have basic preventative fire tools in their vehicle, such as a water pump/can, a shovel, various axes, and a fire extinguisher. If anyone is working in the wildland landscape, I highly encourage them to have at least 20 pounds worth of fire extinguisher readily available. That could be the difference between stopping an event the moment it starts and a fire turning into an event that burns thousands of acres, including homes.

These tools aren’t free, but certainly a wise investment to consider. Most of these tools are marked as multipurpose, to be used for other tasks on the job, if available. The idea for using these preventative tools is to rob the fire of one of its key elements: fuel.

Remain Vigilant

Understanding potential ignition points is incredibly important and should be part of every employee’s training, including highway vehicle, power tool, and power line fire safety. Think of the “One Less Spark–One Less Wildfire” campaign.

A lot of wildland fires start on highways (e.g., cars and medians catching on fire) and they can spread quickly. The most common ignition points are hot materials coming out of exhaust pipes or tow chains dragging on the road (or similar pieces of metal hanging off a vehicle that create sparks). We should make a conscious effort to ensure that chains are secured properly on vehicles and avoid grass when pulling off to the side of the road.

When it comes to power tool fire safety, chainsaws have spark arrestors for a reason. They are designed to keep hot material from exiting the exhaust port on the saws and, ideally, divert the hot material from making its way to combustible vegetation.

Powerline fire safety should also be taken into consideration. It is important not to allow trees to grow into the lines and to make sure that there isn’t incidental contact while working. Contact with the lines can ignite vegetation. Ignition can occur in numerous forms: a powerline, someone throwing a cigarette out of a moving car, or an escaped campfire. Regardless of a fire’s origins, we must remain vigilant.

Know your capacity. Again, our job is not to fight wildland fires; our job is to prevent them from happening. Our industry shouldn’t have to carry out a direct attack on a wildland fire. If the fire is small and conditions hinder its spread, swift action with a fire extinguisher is appropriate. Ultimately, our job is prevention, prevention, prevention.

Be safe, be aware, and remember: prevention is our job.

With more than 20 years of experience in the utility services industry, ACRT Services Senior Manager Bob Urban has built a wealth of expertise on everything from operations and sales to training and negotiation. He is an ISA-Certified Utility Arborist and attended Paul Smith’s College in New York.