Two Burns, Two Days
Fire 1: Monday (last week)
There comes a time in everyone's career where a task usually conducted with other people all of a sudden becomes a task conducted by only you. This is both a great feeling; the organization/company/place you work thinks you can do the task on your own and a "oh god" feeling: "You want me to do this alone? Ha! No I've never done this alone before. No, I don't think I can do this alone. Leaving me alone to do this task is a bad idea. Oh god, I'm alone. What do I do? What do I do?" Can anyone relate or is this just me?
On fire, I am always paired up with one or two people. I am never alone.
Well, this time… I was alone for a small part of it. The tasks were straight forward: patrol and keep an eye on the person lighting the fire with a drip torch. A simple enough question when there are two people in the UTV; mostly because I can make suggestions as to what I think we should do but not make the actual decisions of doing so. A not that simple task when you are alone. All of a sudden everything that should be straightforward or easy became difficult. "They asked me to patrol. Ok, but how far back do I patrol? How often do I patrol? How long can I leave the person lighting the fire alone? I can't do both at the same time, what if something happens while I'm patrolling?" (keep in mind we have radios, so we're always a call away from one another. If there had been a problem, the person lighting the fire could have called me). Well, it took me a minute to organize all my thoughts, and I started doing what I had seen other firefighters do: patrol and keep an eye on the person lighting the fire.
To answer the question that crossed my mind: I patrolled until I saw the engine I knew was further back behind me and I patrolled until I didn't think it was necessary to go any further. The area we were burning was very wet so the fire was not catching very much. Almost not at all. So the likelihood of it crossing over the road was very slim. Between each patrol I came back to check on the person lighting the fire and stayed behind her for a little bit before patrolling again. It wasn't that long of a stretch. But to me, it was a long stretch! First time alone on a UTV (not the stressful part) but the first time making the final decision of what to do. When we reached the southern perimeter, I was feeling a little better. I was like "Ok maybe I can do this alone." Sometimes the best thing to do is to just do something (something reasonable of course) but to just do something. If you do something, it can give you confidence to do something else.
But when you are alone and it is your first time alone, you can mess up. Now nothing bad happened (two firefighters came right in time to the rescue - thank you!) but I was too slow in protecting a tire that held up two or three metal very tall vertical rods. But let me backup a little.
The southern perimeter of the refuge is covered in a lot of concrete lots. The concrete has cracked over time and vegetation has grown in between those cracks. Do you see where I am going with this? Maybe? Well, if you don't let me explain. Fire likes vegetation. And it likes to creep through those cracks (we call it crack creeping). There is also a lot of building/stuff on the southern perimeter that needs protecting. So lighting fires and protecting structures. I had done this before. Well, while I was preventing crack creepers from burning a plastic tub, the fire was getting incredibly close to the two tires. I had noticed the fire getting closer but didn't move fast enough to be able to save both tires. I was quick enough to save one. The credit for the other tire goes to the two other firefighters. My heart was beating fast at that point. My thought was "Oh my god, I almost brought this entire structure to the ground." I don't know if it would have fallen to the ground but I would have felt very bad if it had. Anyways, what I realized the second after saving the one tire was that I had to learn to prioritize what required immediate attention. The crack creeper could have been stopped after saving the tire. The reason? It wasn't right next to the tub and it had a long way to go to actually reach anything important. What I should have done was save both tires and then go get the crack creeper.
It's a lot to think about when you are all alone for the first time. I drove the UTV up the fire line, unwinded the hose, sprayed water on the fire, reeled the hose back in, drove the UTV to the tire, unwinded the hose again, and sprayed the fire and tire with water. All this in a minute's time. But now I know. Now I know how to be quick with the hose and not to worry whether the hose is nicely reeled in or not… (I didn't reel it in perfectly, but it did cross my mind how badly it was reeled in when I was reeling it in - especially since it can get jumbled up if you don't reel it in somewhat nicely). Anyways! Lesson learned and a practice I will apply in the future.
The rest of the burn, I was not alone. I was paired with another firefighter and we spent the entire time fighting crack creepers and protecting structures. Lots of UTV driving and spraying water with the hose! There were so many things to hose down and spray! But that's what makes things interesting (and less stressful when you are with another person!)
Oh another small thing I learned that day! Use tools to avoid using too much water! I was spraying down a snag that was hanging on by a thread when another fighter just came up and knocked it down with a pick hoe. To be fair, I have yet to use tools on fireo my first thought was not "let me go get a tool." I did not have the UTV or any other tool so I could not have used one either way.
Fire 2: Tuesday (last week)
I had learned a lot from the day before. I was asked to patrol once again and I knew what to do. I saw a snag that was smoking and waited to hose it down until the firefighter I was working with took some bark off with a pick hoe. I got to use the drip torch again! Hadn't done that in a while or at least not for longer periods of time. I got to push my way through the thorns and trees.
Something that I have not mentioned yet is working as a team. At the start you are placed with one or two partners. However, that does not mean that you will be with that one partner the entire time. In fact you have to be comfortable with switching partners. On the first fire that day, I worked with two different teams. One of them was the firefighter that told me to use a pick hoe instead of using water. He is also the one I waited for before spraying down the snag on this fire. That's the beauty of switching teams. You learn different techniques or tricks or concepts by experiencing the experience other people have while on a fire. It’s a communal effort and you know you have to play your part in it, even if you're in a beginners position.
We burned two more areas that same day. It involved protecting soooo many structures (there are a lot of things in this refuge). The last thing I learned that day was that you are not done until the fire is done! While patrolling one last time, a firefighter noticed that a snag was smoking on the side of the road that we had not burned. We almost both missed it. So we hosed it down and then another firefighter came along and said "I'm just going to cut it down." It wasn't a tall snag - maybe 6 feet - but he decided that watering it down was not worth it so he chopped it down with a chainsaw and sliced it into pieces that we threw to the other side of the road in black. Only then were we done! We gathered all the equipment up and headed back to the main fire building. After a final briefing, the fire was done.
Pictures by Audrey M. Basson