Firefighters learn new, sophisticated techniques to combat summer wildfires

World Today

The summer wildfire season is underway for the Northern Hemisphere – and already fires are burning in Canada, Europe and several U.S. states including Alaska.

Wildland firefighting has changed a lot over the past few decades. It’s grown more sophisticated – as fire seasons have grown longer. CGTN’s Hendrik Sybrandy reports.

In Colorado, members of West Metro Fire Rescue practice the helicopter extraction of injured wild land firefighters.

“We’re always keeping our skills up and training on new technologies, new information,” Brendan Finnegan, captain of the West Metro Fire Rescue said.

The training begins in January.“Throughout the years, we’ve learned many lessons. We train on those lessons, reflect on those lessons,” Finnegan said.

Perhaps the biggest teaching moment for his agency and many others came on July 6, 1994, during the South Canyon Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

The entire hillside was covered in flames. As reported then, 50 wildland firefighters stationed on Storm King Mountain were suddenly overrun by a wind-driven fire that raced up a canyon directly towards them.

Former hotshot firefighter Alex Robertson remembers it well. “I was on the hill for a total of 45 minutes before we were chased off the hill,” Robertson said. “The wind took it and a lot of folks were in a really bad spot.”

Fourteen firefighters died that day including smokejumpers, who jumped from airplanes onto Storm King Mountain. The event marked a sea change in the way wildfires are fought. The fire community has never stopped saying ‘we will never forget.’

“This event 25 years ago shaped what we do in wild land fire. It changed it forever,” Rob Berger of the Upper Colorado River Management Unit said.

This past Saturday, the South Canyon Fire was remembered for its human toll and its legacy. A subsequent investigation found a lack of communication, fire lookouts, safety zones and escape routes all contributed to the catastrophe. Areas, fire officials said, that are much improved today.

“We have a really coordinated approach to most everything we do,” Berger said.

Training, fire management, even who gets promoted have all become more sophisticated. “We have taken on a program very similar to the military of taking our newest recruits and teaching them to lead early, teaching them to follow,” Robertson said.

Fire crews get far more information about fire behavior and weather conditions, also lacking back in 1994. They carry incident response pocket guides like this one.

“We’re all unfortunately members of a club that nobody wants to belong to,” Jim Roth said, whose brother died in the fire.

Roth said his brother’s death is partly because of an inadequate fire shelter. Roth’s fire curtain is one of many high-tech products that now help protect firefighters. Even Storm King Mountain serves as a training site to this day.

“And the families love that. It’s like hey our loved ones sacrificed here. Let’s learn from this,” Roth said.

With wildfires now burning more months during each year, this remains a risky profession. Fatalities still occur.

“Each time we’re learning how to do better, how to avoid pitfalls,” Finnegan said.

And avoid tragedies like this one.

“And it’s fresh for everybody that we want to do whatever we can to prevent something like that in the future,” Berger said.