A large part of fighting forest fires is hard physical labour. Heavy equipment and helicopters are also used. Seamless cooperation between the individual actors is ultimately decisive in rapidly combating a fire. Therefore annual forest fire trainings take place in forest fire danger areas. Carrying out such exercises is also sensible in areas with lower forest fire risks.

Fire fighting crews

A fire fighting crew’s duty is to put out surface fires (offensive approaches) and create firebreaks and scarification strips (defensive approaches). In addition, they ensure that a fire is completely extinguished and prevent the fire spreading by sparks, also without the support of fire tenders. A fire fighting crew is made up of at least a group of 9 people and a vehicle if required.

Equipment for manual fire fighting crews

Forest fires can be successful fought using simple work tools. What needs to be considered is the flame length (FL), which is the distance from the tip of the flame to the ground. The choice of tool is dependent on this length.

Fire fighting crews are equipped with the following equipment depending on the fire’s intensity:

  • Hoes and fire rakes,
  • Shovel (the "Bavarian Sand Shovel" is particularly suitable),
  • Forest fire beaters,
  • Chain saws with personal protective equipment and accessories,
  • Backpack sprayers,
  • Hoses, distributors, basic nozzles,
  • Carrier for the equipment and supplies
  • Lights (torch, flashlight, headlight)

Branches can be felled using carried axes and used as fire-fighting tools (to swat out flames).

Personal protective equipment

When deploying fire fighting crews, personal protective equipment is indispensible. A balance must be made here between the optimal protective effect from short term contact with flames and flying sparks and the greatest possible level of wearer comfort. In warm weather conditions multilayered outerwear can cause stress for the wearer. However, work should not be undertaken without outerwear as even small sparks can cause injury. Wearing long underclothes and a single layer fire fighting uniform is optimal.

To ease working in slightly smoky areas simple particle filters with an additional cotton cloth in combination with closely fitting, non-fogging, protective glasses can be worn. The glasses protect fire fighters from sparks, smoke and heat radiation. Free skin (face, throat, neck) is protected with a flame proof hood or neck protector or during longer deployments with a light helmet and headscarf. Breathing apparatuses should only be worn in extreme circumstances in heavily smoky areas. In cases when fleeing from a fire zone, a breaking mask with filter is to be worn.

In addition, protective gloves and a whistle to warn of sudden dangers belong to the personal protective equipment. Sunscreen or insect repellent should also be available to the fire service staff.

Wearing robust lace-up boots is recommended as suitable protective footwear for the uneven terrain of forests. The risk of spraining a foot or of being injured is reduced as the foot is well supported. As burning areas and embers are walked on when fighting fires, soles of shoes must be heat resistant and sufficiently stable.

Drinks and provisions

There is a threat of heat exhaustion from hard physical labour near a fire. For this reason adequate amounts of liquid should be drunk as a precautionary measure. Approximately one litre of water per hour, spread over time, should be consumed. Fruit juice spritzers or still water are the most suitable liquids. Similarly, a sufficient energy supply during the mission is also important. Fruit, bread and sausage are found on the menu.

The operational personnel must be regularly replaced. Effectively battling a blaze is only possible if there are sufficient fire crews available to be deployed as reinforcements.

Drinks and provisions

There is a threat of heat exhaustion from hard physical labour near a fire. For this reason adequate amounts of liquid should be drunk as a precautionary measure. Approximately one litre of water per hour, spread over time, should be consumed. Fruit juice spritzers or still water are the most suitable liquids. Similarly, a sufficient energy supply during the mission is also important. Fruit, bread and sausage are found on the menu.

The operational personnel must be regularly replaced. Effectively battling a blaze is only possible if there are sufficient fire crews available to be deployed as reinforcements.

Fire fighting with fire engines

Ground based fire crews are usually supported by fire engines. In particular fire risk areas special forest fire tenders are used. In principle only all terrain vehicles should be used.

The most important features when operating in rough terrain are four-wheel drive, a shortest possible vehicle, ground clearance, low total weight and low ground pressure as well as appropriate tyres (with variable air pressure if needed). Additional equipment features are antiskid chains (when used on slopes) as well as dust masks, protective glasses and breathing apparatuses for the crew. When fighting forest fires extra pieces of equipment are to be carried as a minimum. This includes additional hoses, pipes and distributers, a planting mattock, a fire beater, two backpack sprayers/rucksack extinguishers as well as a set each of dust masks or protective eyewear.

In the best case, fire tenders have a “Pump & Roll-Function” which makes discharging water while driving possible. In the early phases of a forest or wildfire one must be extremely efficient with the amount of available water. Particularly when using mobile water tankers, which only have a limited storage capacity, the optimal output quantity has to be determined. The addition of wetting agents can increase efficacy and counteract the general scarcity of water. Air foam, pressurized air foam and gelling agents are appropriate for safeguarding objects and firebreaks.

As most forest fires deal with surface fires, water canons with jet sprayers are of prime importance. On difficult terrain good manoeuvrability is especially advantageous. In locations where open flames and burning matter endanger the use of conventional hoses, steel pipes are used.

Only once the outer perimeter of the fire has been extinguished can one begin with extinguishing the entire area of the fire by means of fire engines. Before the fire engines can be positioned, it must be ensured that the planned parking spot is completely extinguished. In doing so damage to the control and supply lines is prevented.

During the operation vehicles are so positioned that an escape is possible if the fire changes direction. That means driving backwards into the site so that a quick escape can be realised if danger arises. Furthermore care must be taken that parked vehicles do not impede the access for following units. Oncoming traffic on access and exit areas to supply stations, water extraction and operation sites are to be avoided.

Fire fighting from the air

In principle, fighting forest fires from the air can only be seen as a supporting measure to a ground based campaign. However, it is indispensible for large scale fires and is not seldom the only combative option. Water bombs released from aircraft are primarily used to fight rapidly spreading fires. Areas contaminated with ammunitions or which are difficult to access e.g. alpine regions, can be reached using air support. Precise water bombs are used as targeted extinguishers.

In Germany helicopters with special external containers belonging to the police, military or private service providers are usually used. In Austria the fire service is supported in fighting forest fires by the Federal Ministry of the Interior and Federal Armed Forces. Along with the transport of water by helicopter, in alpine regions the transport of crews and equipment is also an important role.

Before using a helicopter a clear deployment strategy is developed. It must be determined at which location the helicopter can fill its external tanks and where the sources of fire can be attacked. The plan must show where vehicles can be refuelled and parked during breaks.

In order not to put the ground crews at risk it must be clearly defined in advance in which areas water can be dropped from the air. During an air attack the target area must be cleared of fire fighting crews. If fire fighting crews remain in the target area these should not be doused if possible. Similarly, the danger of falling branches or rolling stones on hillsides is increased by helicopters.

Coloured agents are usually added to fire fighting water when fighting fires from the air to indicate which areas have been treated.

Water extraction points

When fighting a forest fire, apart from a supply of provisions, a large amount of water must be obtained. The maintenance, expansion and technical improvement of a network of fire fighting water extraction points is therefore especially necessary in fire endangered areas. The density and output capacity of the network is determined by site specific needs. Water extraction points must be permanently marked and mapped and accesses maintained and signposted. Water for fire fighting can be taken from: natural watercourses accessible by fire engines, artificial ponds and/or shallow and deep wells with a powerful underground pump if possible.

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