One Powerful Day in my Wildland Firefighting Career

One Powerful Day in my Wildland Firefighting Career


Anonymous Author

Only separated by half-fallen barbed wire fence, we weaved our way between the U.S. and Mexico. Our mission was to perform burning operations on a large and very remote piece of previously constructed fire line. On one eventful day, a mixture of 20 firefighters from various crews (including myself), working out of one Ranger District, were assembled and transported Douglass, AZ. It was mid spring, but the fuels in the Arizona desert near Douglass were bone dry and ready to burn. Dry, tall grass combined with large growths of tall desert sage and a scattered cactus provided the perfect recipe for extreme fire behavior.

A wildland firefighters uses a drip torch to perform tactical burning operations.

Typically, it takes a lot of fire suppression resources to perform a successful burnout operation including equipment and crews such as engines, water tenders, multiple hand crews, and air attack for the best chance for success. Backfiring a piece of fire line, whether it be a road, a bulldozer line, or a piece of line constructed by a 20-person crew with hand tools, is one of the most challenging and exciting operations one will ever perform during their wildland firefighting career.

Backfiring involves fighting fire with fire. Firefighters igniting fire and then push it towards the main fire to eliminate fuels between the fire line and the main fire. This strategy is used during optimal fuel and weather conditions, giving firefighters an advantage in wildland fire suppression. Igniting and burning unburned fuel creates a buffer of land that can slow fire progression, making it much easier to manage. Essentially, it takes the steam out of the main moving fire front.

Throughout my 20-year wildland firefighting career, I have been involved with performing burning operations on countless miles of fire line, in a variety of environments. However, on this day there was no heavy equipment or other resources to support us, leaving very few resources to perform the mission.

In the beginning, the firing operation was moving smoothly. We anticipated performing ignitions around a mile of indirect line, consisting mostly of dry creek drainages and modified game trails. As the burn progressed within a dry creek wash, the wash began to narrow and the wind changed direction—and not in our favor. We typically prefer the wind to blow in the direction where fuel has already been burned, or the “black”, but at this moment the winds were now blowing toward the “green” or unburned fuel. This was not the intent, nor would it be of an advantage. However, it was not an uncommon situation, but definitely one to pay attention to.

And there we saw it- the spot fire. A combination of the topography of the dry creek wash creating a funnel and the change in direction of the wind led to a small spot fire, or a new fire start that crossed the fire line. Most of the crew witnessed this, especially noticing how quickly it seemed to grow from one foot in diameter.

To this day, I do not recall another moment when a spot fire exploded so quickly, but within 30 seconds, this one-by-one spot blew up into about an acre of fire on the wrong side of our fire line.

The spot fire jumped through miles of tall sagebrush, creating 40+ feet flame lengths as it ran across the desert. To be clear, this is not an ideal situation and, like I stated earlier, operations of this magnitude are typically accompanied by many more fire suppression resources. A surge of adrenaline started to take over my body as I realized and became nervous of the extent of the situation.  This was not a good position to be in.   

If we had more firefighting resources, it quite possibly could’ve helped us control the spot fire before it got too rowdy. The spot probably burned around 500 acres of land before the sun went down. To our favor, the wind finally died down and we were able to manage the spot fire the next day. I could never forget this as I had never experienced the full power of Mother Nature like this before.  Impressive for sure but these experiences humbly gave me respect for her and what she is capable. It’s not every day where you get to look her in the eye and be astounded and excited by her presence. 

We spent the next few days working our spot fire to ensure that all heat that could threaten our handline was extinguished. Ultimately, we spent 14 days on that assignment, plus travel days resulting in a 17-day assignment. That duration of work is not uncommon in a wildland fire career. 

We arrived home safely, prior to the standard California fire season (May to October) and continued to prepare for the busy season to come. Every day since has been a blessing throughout my wildland firefighting career–getting paid in sunsets making it all worth it.

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