At a Glance: Firefighting 101

Here's How Wildland Hand Crews Work, Talk, Eat, and Save the Day

Cooper Boneck (center), one of two Arroyo Grande Hotshots working to cut a fire break up steep terrain in Toro Canyon along side members of Bend Oregon City firefighters, Santa Lucia Crew Seven and Vandenberg Hotshots. (Dec. 12, 2017)
Paul Wellman

Wildland firefighters sure seem superhuman ​— ​they scramble up and down flaming slopes for days on end, carrying heavy packs and swinging hefty tools. But these flesh-and-blood mortals have the same basic needs as the rest of us. Here’s how Santa Barbara County Fire Department hand crews protect themselves, what they eat, how they talk, and who looks out for them from above.

Tools of the Trade

Indirect attacks are critical to fighting fast-moving wildland fires ​— ​drawing lines in the sand some distance from the fire’s edge to hold the blaze at bay. These are the tools that hand crews use to chew through brush and chaparral.

Chainsaw: The most ubiquitous portable power tool in wildland firefighting. Used by the sawyer to cut and the puller to clear vegetation.

Courtesy Photo
Courtesy Photo

Pulaski: A dual-purpose device with a double-edged head — one to cut like an ax, the other to slice roots and dig trenches

Rhino: A bruiser of a tool — used to slash through large weeds and brush and quickly clear wide stretches of terrain — that’s essentially a shovel with its blade cut off and spine cut and then turned over 180 degrees and re-welded to form a curved hoe.

Combi: A versatile piece of equipment that can be used as a shovel or configured like a mini-rhino to clear brush and throw dirt.

A typical county fire hand crew consists of a crew boss, four sawyers, four pullers, three to four Pulaskis, and one or two rhinos and combis

Culinary Delights

Courtesy Photo

Every day before they head to the line, Santa Barbara County firefighters scarf down a hot breakfast at base camp and then grab a brown-bag lunch packed with at least 3,000 calories of sustenance. They have a meat option and veggie option (pictured here), which includes a green burrito with Portobello mushrooms, noodles with red bell peppers, lots of nuts, energy bars, a few pieces of fruit, and a cookie. The meat option comes with a ham sandwich on wheat bread.

Sky Saviors

Though more than 90 planes and helicopters rallied from around the state to pound the Thomas Fire with water and retardant, these six types of aircraft have done the bulk of the heavy lifting:

The Gear

The Lingo

Backing Fire: The portion of a fire with slower rates of spread and lower intensity that’s normally moving against the wind

Backfiring: Also called a “controlled” or “prescribed burn,” this is when crews intentionally set a fire inside a specified area to burn off fuels before they can be consumed by a rapidly spreading wildfire. Firefighters then dig lines in places where they can battle the blaze more on their terms.

Containment: Essentially, another word for “surrounded.” The percentage of a fire’s perimeter where a break has been constructed that can be reasonably expected to stop the fire’s spread. This can include any combination of manually created breaks, hose lines, or natural barriers.

Crowning: The movement of fire through the tops of trees or shrubs more or less independently of the surface fire

Fire Whirl: A spinning vortex of hot air and gases created by erratic winds that carries smoke, debris, and flames

Flanks: The parts of a fire’s perimeter that are roughly parallel to the main direction of spread

Flare-Up: Any sudden increase in a fire’s acceleration or intensity. Unlike a “blowup,” a flare-up lasts a relatively short time and doesn’t radically change control plans.

Hotspot: A particularly active part of a fire

Mop Up: To make a fire safe after it’s been controlled by extinguishing or removing burning material along the control line

Slopover: A fire edge that crosses a control line or natural barrier

Spotting: A type of fire behavior that produces sparks or embers that are carried by the wind and start new “spot fires”

Torching: The ignition and flare-up of a tree or small group of trees, usually from bottom to top


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