By Lindsay R. Mohlere
It seems like fire season just arrived at our doorstep, knocked quietly, looked up and down the block, and then proceeded to kick in the door and wreak havoc, torching thousands of acres throughout the Northwest.
At this writing, there are more than 50 significant fires raging from the Canadian border south, east, and west, down into Northern California.
Of the many, the Carr Fire burning outside of Redding, California, is the deadliest. Over 202,000 acres have been torched and at least seven people have been killed, with several more missing. Nearly 6,000 people have been evacuated. The fire has razed 1,073 homes and 506 other structures, damaging an additional 258 other structures. Currently, the fire is a shade over 60 percent contained, burning in heavy timber areas and steep drainages, which are challenging firefighting efforts.
As reported August 12, the Mendocino Complex Fire has charred over 331,399 acres, about the size of New York City, and is the largest blaze in California’s history. It is not contained either.
Most of the fires across our region were started by lightning or human behavior. The Angel Fire near Davenport, Washington, was started when a combine caught fire in a wheat field. The wind did the rest.
Preparedness Level Hits Top Spot
On July 29, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, announced that the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group (NMAC) moved the National Fire Preparedness Level (PL) to 5. This is only the fourth time in a decade that the nation’s top wildland fire managers have dialed up the gauge on the wildfire situation to its highest and most severe level.
According to NMAC, PL 5 opens the door for increased military assistance beyond what is already in use, and agency personnel in other positions may be activated for fire duty. International assets may or may not be considered and requested.
Oregon, Washington, and California have called up their respective National Guard units, sending hundreds of soldiers and airmen to firefighting training and then to the fires. It is probably just a matter of time before Idaho does the same.
Last year, the Preparedness Level got ramped up and hung at 5 for 40 days. That was August. We started a month ahead of last year. And it doesn’t look good going forward.
According to the National Weather Service, the hot, dry, and wind-driven weather conditions are predicted to stay the same for some time.
So far this year, 36,689 wildfires have burned over 4,151,098 million acres of federal, tribal, state, and private land in the United States. In comparison, the number of wildfires to date is slightly below the ten-year average of 38,620 fires. However, the ten-year average for the number of acres burned is 3,645,013 million, which is lower than current acres burned to date this year.
With the drought conditions throughout the West, I’m thinking maybe the fire managers should have brought the PL to 5 a lot sooner. It might be our new normal.
Physical Therapy and the Art of the Ax
The Forest Service, in an effort to boost efficiency and safety, is producing a new training manual for tree-topping techniques using lessons learned from “tactical athlete” training techniques and physical therapy.
The term, “tactical athlete” is commonly used to identify personnel in law enforcement, military, firefighting, and rescue professions who require unique physical training strategies aimed at optimizing occupational physical performance. Hot Shot crews and smokejumpers are considered tactical athletes.
The USFS personnel are developing the manual with the assistance of physical therapists who are watching the biomechanics of cutting to find ways to prepare the body and train to use a saw or ax. They’re also looking at how physical therapy can influence, not only the physical training, but also how to manage the mental state in the workplace, before an injury happens.
Over a year ago, the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries offered a Safety and Health Investment Projects (SHIP) grant commissioning the study to research, test, and develop a manual to help prevent and reduce musculoskeletal injuries, which account for the largest percentage of compensable occupational claims within the logging industry. The study used wearable technology similar to technology used in collegiate and professional athletics and looked to particular logging jobs where musculoskeletal issues were prevalent. Rigging men, timber cutters, and equipment operators had most of these issues.
I think we’ll see more of this kind of collaboration as these studies shed a helpful light on some of the old-fashioned techniques we use in the woods and on the fire line to make a very difficult job just a little bit safer.
Currently, there are 19 fires burning in Oregon and Washington. You can bet that’s going to change overnight. Winds are predicted at 10 – 20 mph, and the temperature will be climbing to the high 90s and possibly into triple digits.
That’s a wrap. Stay safe out there!
(Source: InciWeb, ODF, WA/DNR, NWCC, USFS, AP, NIFC, Missoulian, Strength and Conditioning Journal)
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