Fire in Tennessee — Narrow Escape

It’s not getting a ton of national media, but there are hundreds of fires in the tinder-dry mountains of Tennessee and western North Carolina. These are two parts of one video, showing the escape of one Michael Luciano, another guy and a dog named Red from fires in Gatlinburg. We think we’ve got them in the right order (warning, NSFW but understandable language). The first one ends with a tree blocking the road, and an attempt to run over with the truck:

We believe this to be the next element of the same escape. Just under three more minutes, more NSFW language, especially when they come to a car whose driver has frozen in the road:

Some thoughts:

  • While the camera exaggerates the bad visibility, you really can’t see anywhere near a fire.
  • That smoke is also full of toxic, invisible gases.
  • No one is coming to rescue you, when you live out in the woods and the mountains.
  • Ask yourself if the terrified driver in the car could have made it over the trees that Michael’s truck cleared.
  • There are several places in the video where one small error would have stranded even an off-road capable 4×4. How many of us have recovery equipment in our vehicles? (We think there’s an avalanche shovel, a relic of climbing days, and a coil of rope in our regular car).
  • How many of the owners of these homes — mostly second homes, cabins — had irreplaceable heirlooms in them?
  • You wonder how many pets got left behind. You can hear the dog Red’s labored breathing in the first video. You don’t want people dying to save dogs and cats (and horses!) but what do you do when, as the Luciano tape notes, you had no warning, and nothing was on the radio or TV until the fire was upon you?
  • Nothing you can do to prepare your property will protect it from a fire like this.
  • Professional firefighters are highly limited in what they can do to fight a fire of this magnitude. At one point, someone in the truck says, “They’re not even trying to put it out.” Of course not. They’re trying to do things that they conceivably can do. Saving these homes and this section of forest is impossible. 
  • Not living in the wildfire beaten zone of the mountain West is a double-edged sword. It means you seldom get fires like this, but it also means that after a couple of years of below-average rainfall, the whole forest is ready to go FOOM and nobody’s been building with a view to fire safety like they do where fires are an annual or biennial event.
  • The cabins are burning where the forest isn’t yet, because the flashover temperature of some part of the cabin was reached. That’s pretty normal — fire is lazy and burns the easy fuels first.
  • The professional forest managers’ preference for letting the growth go completely wild, and let nature manage the fuel, has its consequences. This is how nature manages the buildup of inflammable fuel in the forest.
  • Germany doesn’t have wildfires. If you’ve ever been in a German forest, you understand why. (It doesn’t hurt that the climate is usually temperate and humid with plenty of precipitation, but then, so is Tennessee).
  • While fires like this can be started by electrical storms, or careless campers, most of these fires are thought to have been deliberately started.
  • Once they’re going, though, they’re a Force of Nature. Man stands against Nature at his own peril.

This was an extremely narrow escape. It was made possible by a sturdy truck, a timely (well, maybe not timely, but not too late) decision to go, and the blind luck of an open road. The lives of the people in this vehicle stood on a tripod, of which only two legs were at all in their control. Relying on blind luck (or Divine Providence) often works, but it’s never guaranteed. When wildfires rage in your community, it’s probably a good time to go stay with friends or relatives hundreds or thousands of miles away. The whole world never burns at once.

56 thoughts on “Fire in Tennessee — Narrow Escape

    1. LCPL Martinez USMC

      I thought in only burns out West.

      Not sure if it applies here, but I live in a rural area with urban just right over the hills. So as far as resources go, ie. first responders, water dropping planes and helicopters, etc. etc. I’m covered,

      BUT even with all that, all these resources mean nothing if you don’t evacuate, at first sight of smoke, or at the very least get stuff ready and packed. Regardless of individual preparation, I’ve been some close calls that didn’t have to happen.

      One sobering thing I noticed , is that fire and police personnel don’t communicate well during fire. Usually fire personnel are out in the field, manning fire breaks and driving around observing the fire, while police, LE types are

      gathered in some CP somewhere clear away from danger, usually means they are eating all the pizzas and Gatorades and stuff that the community gives out/donates to first responders.

      So while the cops are eating all the free food, fire personnel for some reason always (or tend to) err on the side of calling for mandatory evac when the fire’s about to converge on residence, it’s already too late (understandable because they are busy).

      Instead of hanging back in the command post, police need to affect their own evac , and more importantly ensure egress a plenty and will accommodate stampede type scenarios …

      The same way police can issue an illegal gathering notice and affect crowd dispersion , they alone (no need for fire) should be able to affect evacuation, ensuring egress is clear… way before it’s too hot.

      At least in California, in times of brush fire, the police tend to sit idly by awaiting for fire’s instruction, where they should be more pro-active, by shuttling those pizza and Gatorade meant for the firemen , this will ensure that they are out and about with fire, where they can better

      affect evacuations. This should be their call not fire’s.

      1. LCPL Martinez USMC

        I understand that police have little to no protection from fire (well maybe gas mask for smoke), but I’d argue that this places them at a better vantage to call voluntary to mandatory evacuations.

        That mind-set of closing down whole parts of the city or setting up a real big perimeter for hours on end, should be similarly applied to evacuations during fires, ie. better safe than sorry.

  1. SPEMack

    Christ. Jackie and I went there for a couple’s retreat after I got out of Ranger School mumble mumble years ago.

    I’m sorry for the forestry manager for that region needs to stood in front of a wall and shot.

    Proscribed burns people. Smokey the Bear didn’t get it completely right.

    (I was an ardent naturalist before deciding to study beer and sorority girls. Had a really good Forestry Merit Badge instructor in Boy Scouts)

    1. Quill_&_Blade

      I’m about 30 miles from all this, we’re keeping our eyes open. the fires are everywhere, little ones mostly. At first there appeared to be a media silence of sorts, maybe to reduce copy-cats. I’ve lived here about 23 years, and usually there’s so much rain that fires, controlled or otherwise, are a non-event. Not quite the Oregon coast, but we get a bit of rain. The mountains and narrow roads would hinder things, most of the forest is hardwoods, it doesn’t have the pine pitch that a conifer forest does. The undergrowth is usually at the edges of the woods, where sunlight can get to the forest floor. The tree canopy chokes out most small growth in the middle.
      The sky has been strange with all the smoke, completely overcast, but you can tell it’s not clouds. Been getting pretty pictures though.

  2. Loren

    A great mostly unknown US disaster was the Peshtigo WI. fire of 1871. Happened the same day as the great Chicago fire which explains the unknown part.
    The fire burned through Wisconsin and the UP of Michigan. Killed an estimated 1500 to 2500 people.
    Various websites will give the gory details, but essentially nothing lived in the fires path and no shelter was good enough, even the bottom of a well or in rivers.

  3. John M.

    “The whole world never burns at once.”

    I have it on good Authority that it will someday.

    “But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.” 2 Peter 3:7

    -John M.

        1. LCPL Martinez USMC

          Some say the world will end in fire,
          Some say in ice.
          From what I’ve tasted of desire
          I hold with those who favor fire.
          But if it had to perish twice,
          I think I know enough of hate
          To say that for destruction ice
          Is also great
          And would suffice.

  4. Alan Ward

    If you want to see some freaky fire videos, look up those from the Fort McMurray fire here in Alberta this year. Localised wildfire that grew and grew until it came right into the city. The entire population of 80,000 plus were evacuated in the space of a few hours.

  5. Scott

    Interesting. that’s about 100mi from where I’m building a house. (Taking a brief break from same before resuming tomorrow.) It’s all over the news on the radio. There have been fires to the south, west and northeast of where we’re building.

    Worrisome, but did I mention the walls of my house are concrete, and the roof / gable ends metal? I’m sure if things got hot enough, the roof trusses could ignite, but there would be, besides the deck, nothing that would ignite from direct contact.

    Before deciding to build, we looked at a log cabin foreclosure, fairly recent construction (last 20 years or so), and bore bees had eaten up the first log on top of the foundation and compromised it’s integrity. I don’t know how you fix that. I did have bore bees eat into my treated deck. Those bees, and the threat of fire, cured me of any interest in living in a log home. Quaint, but high maintenance.

    I also had the contractor err on the side of removing too many trees near the house. Expensive to take them down later–and no point in fuel being that close the house.

    Anyway, I trust that others are picking up the typos whilst I play building contractor.

    1. Loren

      The Australians are fire experts as their Eucalyptus tree are full of flammable oils. The trees go up like bombs.
      You should know that houses have vulnerable parts other than the obvious ones.
      Windows in a fire will blow out and the fire gets inside.
      Plastic trim melts and catches on fire.
      Vents in the roof and soffits allow an amazing amount of embers to enter.
      If you have a water source like a pond or pool, a gas powered pump and commercial impact sprinklers set 30′ away from the house to water the grounds and the entire house will save a well cleared property.
      A plowed fire break helps too.

    2. whomever

      What Loren said about e.g. soffit vents. There’s a video somewhere where they knew a fire was coming (prescribed burn???) and put cameras all over/around a house. Bad fires don’t just casually burn up to the house; the fireline has local high winds. It can be a hurricane of burning embers. The video showed them finding their way inside soffit vents, up under siding, etc.

      odd tidbit: we had some bad fires locally last summer (Ponderosa Pine country). A lot of houses burned. One was on slightly sloping land, with one of those above ground vinyl liner swimming pools uphill – which was also the fire direction. The fire wasn’t moving that fast when it hit the pool, which melted the liner, which released a few thousand gallons of water, which flowed around the house. The fire burned on by; when the owners got home their house was setting in a green island. It’s kind of hard to use as a strategy, alas, unless you surround the house with pools :-(.

      Fires seem like a pretty effective tactic for terrorists. I hope they don’t cotton onto that. It’s bad enough when the odd pyro sets them off.

      1. Wysiwyg Mtwzzyzx

        I’ve been worried about that for a long time, but for obvious reasons, avoided mentioning it publically (like in blog comments). Now the fires in Israel and these, and they’re going to have another quite potent weapon in hand.

        The good news is in the areas most prone to fires – like out west here- maintaining ‘fuel modification zones’ around your structures is required by code, and makes a huge difference in survivability- both of structures and people.

        1. John Distai

          I’m pretty sure they’ve considered this tactic. We need to give the enemy a bit more credit, as they are easy to write off as stupid and backward. They apparently aren’t stupid.

          From what I’ve read, the Japanese wanted to use this tactic in WWII. If what I read is true, they had balloons that were engineered to make it across the Pacific and drop incendiary devices after they reached the U.S. The tactic had very limited success.

          1. Boat Guy

            Read accounts of that effort myself. Their limited success didn’t mean it wasn’t a good idea.

          2. Steve M.

            I’ll second the above. I have read the same thing on the incendiary balloons being sent out over the Pacific Northwest. I thought I had read somewhere that the first jump qualified African American Army units of WWII were initially used as smoke jumpers for dealing with Japan’s fire balloons. At some point at the end of or just after WWII they were integrated into the other Airborne units. I might have read that here. Dunno. Read it somewhere.

          3. DSM

            And we also wanted to use a similar tactic against them with the bat bombs. The bats would shimmy their way into the mostly wooden structures where their small incendiary would deploy.

        2. Mike

          Steve M. is correct, the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion was used in the PNW to fight forest fires during the summer and fall of 1945.

  6. BDFT

    Trying to drive through a forest fire is never a good idea. Engines need oxygen to run and if the toxic gas, CO and CO2 are thick enough your engine will quit. Then you are on foot in a forest fire which is even less of a good idea.

    1. MD

      “Trying to drive through a forest fire is never a good idea.” With all due respect, did you happen to watch the video? Choices were getting pretty limited at that stage, with the other road closed due to downed trees and power lines. I suspect these folks are pretty happy they drove through it rather than sit still and perish.

    1. whomever

      ‘The Big Burn’ by Timothy Eagan is another one. Ed Pulaski was involved, if you’ve ever wondered where the tool got its name.

  7. Steve M.

    I’m quite surprised that there wasn’t any warning. I would assume that there had to be some indication of a wildfire before the fire was in the neighborhood. That being said, I won’t say too much as I found myself standing in the middle of Hurricane Irene(2010, I think), with my Jeep Cherokee hopelessly stuck off the side of the road. It was quite impressive to witness 70 and 80 mph winds thrash the trees, but scary too. The whole time I kept rethinking the series of poor decisions that put me there. Truly, a teachable moment.

    1. Wysiwyg Mtwzzyzx

      They were reporting winds gusting up over 70 mph at times. I’ve got to think that the fire can hopscotch a fair distance rather quickly in those conditions- faster than one might have expected.

  8. Hillbilly

    My dad was a long time Smoke Jumper and wildland fire fighter for the US Forest Service. The rants he goes on because of poor forestry practices resulting in huge fires are something to behold.
    I also have or had a couple of uncles and a cousin in the wildland firefighting business and none of them think the USFS does it right.

    1. whomever

      It’s a tough problem. For decades they’d attack every fire when it was small. It takes a while for a fire to generate it’s own winds and so on; a small crew getting there a few hours after it starts can work wonders.

      But we did that for decades, and putting most of them out when they are small allows large areas with heavy fuel loads to develop. Then when one gets away from you, it really gets away.

      So you try to let some of them burn for a while, if it seems safe. The notion is that you get a forest that’s a patchwork of different fuel loads and so on, which helps to keep a monster fire from running away. But letting them burn when it seems safe … is playing with fire. If the weather forecast turns out to be inaccurate, oopsie.

      And we’re building structures in forests where the expected Mean Time Between Burns is less than the structure lifetime. People who build their dream house in the woods don’t want to clear and mow a 50 yard circle around the house, because they want a house in the woods.

      It’s just a really tough problem.

      1. Hillbilly

        I know one of his pet gripes is lack of training. When he was fighting fires all the fire crews got to learn fire behavior doing prescribed burns and burning logging cut blocks. Having that experience was helpful when it came to fires caused by lightning strikes, etc.
        He aways said the Initial Attack was key in getting a fire under control, if that got screwed up the fire was going to get away.

  9. John Distai

    My dad would have done something like drive through that horror. But then again, when I was younger I probably would have done it too. Exciting, but damn foolish.

  10. 6pounder

    Awesome videos. That was a hairy ride for sure. There is lots of coverage of these fires on the Nashville news stations. It’s really bad with three deaths being reported so far this evening.

  11. medic09

    You mentioned recovery tools. I’ve carried a comealong (hand winch) in the car for years now, along with some climbing rope, and an old entrenching tool. That comealong can be used in many situations and takes up very little space. Mine just lies under one of the seats out of the way.

    1. John Distai

      My dad had one of those in the truck behind the seat. It came in real handy on occasion when we were hunting. He had this old beater 4wd truck with bald tires and a few teeth missing from the steering pinion. There was about 10″ of dead space in the steering wheel. He’d attempt to get up these steep snow covered mountain roads.

      “I can’t get the truck up this hill. Here, we’ll back up farther and get more momentum! Get ready to jump out and hook up the come along up if we go into the ditch.”

      Me as a young kid “What’s a come along? I don’t know how to work that thing. Why can’t we just install a winch on our truck like all the other guys have? Can we just go home instead? It’s freezing!”

      “Shut the fuck up and hold on!”

      I can see him driving in that video and yelling “John, get your fucking ass out there and get that tree out of the road! Take the come along and winch it out of the road if you need it! Hurry up, God damn it or you’ll get us both killed!”

    2. Boat Guy

      I’ve had “Recovery Tools” in my vehicles for a long time but a come along hadn’t occurred to me (doh!). Christmas is coming; guess what all of our drivers will be getting for their vehicles?

  12. Bush in Oz

    I do hope they got out safely, there are a number of factors that impact upon the ferocity of bushfires, but one of the main ones is fuel load, that is the plant and leaf matter that provides the fuel for the fire.

    In the Australian context some dry sclerophyll forests can build up a fuel load of 15 to 20 tonnes per hectare within a 10 year period, some forests can continue to have fuel load increase over a 25 year period.

    This combined with the highly flammable oils in eucalypt trees, along with the right weather conditions, such as low summer rainfall, hot northerly winds and high temperatures around 42 Celsius (107 Fahrenheit) make the Australian, and in particular, Victorian state forests a potential bomb with the devastation that a out of control wildfire can cause. Victoria and California share the honor of being the most fire prone states in the world.

    This requires regular winter fuel reduction via burn off’s to reduce fuel loads to attempt to prevent wild fires, however the forest managers and CFA ( Country Fire Authority ) regularly have problems with inner city lefty types trying to prevent fuel reduction, because “fires are bad man”, totally ignoring the evidence that controlled burns are better than wildfires that will totally devastate entire forests and kill the majority of native animals within that environment.

    I lived through the Ash Wednesday fires in South West Victoria and what I remember is the noise of the fires, they sounded like a jet engine screaming overhead, and if a wind change hit you could so easily be trapped, which is what happened to a number of fire fighters.

    Our thoughts and prayers go out to those impacted by these fires.

    1. James In Australia

      The Ash Wednesday fires were bad, specially for those in the Dandenongs and Mt Macedon where they had little or no warning however they dont compare to the Black Saturday fires in terms of impact. Traditional CFA advice with luck would keep you alive through Ash Wednesday, but not Black Saturday. Bricks either melted or exploded (due to moisture within), Windows just shattered, Concrete structures had everything flammable within burn, houses were simply not defendable- even well prepared with pumps and sprinkler systems etc. A perfect storm of weather and fuel load. The heat and speed of that fire was unprecedented in Victoria.

  13. Billybob

    Just to throw my 2 ¢ in.
    I lived in the rural east county of southern Ca.
    I had cleared grass and dead brush in a 6 acre area around our oasis of trees and homes.
    The landowner had purchased a moving dolly that had a gasoline generator and pump attached which had 100 feet of fire hose and nozzle on one end and a hose with filter on the other.
    The fire started by illegal aliens avoiding BP.
    It was on the hill to our s/e at 1600 hours.
    We set up the pump in the pool and based on a friends story from an earlier fire we put on leather coats, gloves, and goggles.
    I can say it was the hardest work I have ever done.
    The wind this fire generated had to have been between 50-70 mph. The embers from the oak and eucalyptus trees were the size of baseballs and burned whatever they exploded on.
    The barn and part of the house east of us burned down. Things exploded. The heat at times were unbearable.
    At 0400 hours we were fairly safe, the fire had moved on towards town. I chased about a few more coals with shovels of dirt then collapsed and slept 5 hours straight on the floor.
    We dried to drive out 2 days layer and the asphalt roads were so hot I thought my tires would explode.
    Wow what a memory. Yes the oasis was still there.

  14. Boat Guy

    We’ve had some burns out here over the years; the one we got evacuated for was good practice and SOME folks here are still keeping the lessons. Our local Humane Society had a table at one of the expos. Folks asking us “What did you do with the dogs?” are met with incredulity “Took them with us, of course” That experience caused us to buy “doggles” though. Nomex balaklavas and gloves are kept in all of our vehicles.
    Another fire a year or so later there was centered in prime horse property and one of the recommendations from the Humane Society folk was for people to write their phone numbers on their horse’s hooves using indelible marker. The stupid qotient in that fire was pretty high; folks not having horse trailers, not doing mitigation on their properties – this is ponderosa country , might just as well store drums of AvGas next to your house.

  15. Frogdaddy

    The guy had balls. Instead of staying put and burning in place. I’m a pansy ass when it comes to this sort. But given the choice to live or die, I’d hope to think I’d act. Fight or flight you have to decide.

  16. Aesop

    I’ve lived and worked in and near fire country my entire life in SoCal.
    Those two guys were the luckiests SOBs on the planet.
    When fire is at the road you’re on, and dropping burning embers and trees on it and you, you’re in the Death Zone.
    One solid tree blocking that road, one flat, or an engine sputter from lack of oxygen, and the occupants of the vehicle are fire load, and will expire as such.

    Someone following them even a couple of minutes later would probably have less than a 50-50 chance of getting out alive.
    Prudent brush crews even with fire engines and full water tanks wouldn’t have pushed through most of what those vidiographers (vidiots?) did.

    The preferred fire management tactic out west has become to let fire burn the hell out of uninhabited areas (thus thinning out fuel for a decade or more) and focus your resources on diverting it away from occupied dwellings.
    But you have to have resources to focus in the first place.

    That whole area, burning so seldom, lacks any sense of urgency about fires as far as warnings, evacuations, and general reporting, nor fire codes to prevent people building with wood shake shingle roofs (might as well just use gasoline-soaked rags for roofing at that point), lacks brush clearance regs and enforcement (hereabouts you clear brush by the fire season deadline, or else the county does it for you, and bills you at their bulldozer operators’ day rates), fire equipment regs for rural properties, lacks local and mutual defense reinforcement plans and agreements with near and distant fire districts, and lacks any semblance of air attack plans or suitable aircraft to water bomb the hell out of a fire (or fires) like those. This is the result.

    God have mercy on those folks and their neighbors.

  17. Alien

    Couple things come to mind; I’ve got just about all the emergency & extrication equipment in my truck that it can reasonably carry. Looking at this, having it is one thing, being able to competently deploy it in one hell of a hurry in adverse conditions and under extremely high stress is another. I need to do some more thinking and planning on that. A LOT more.

    Trees across the road – there’s no way anyone – individuals, homeowners acting as a group, the government – can do much to fireproof – or, more accurately, “fire resist” – square miles of timber and undergrowth. The job is just too big. But cutting trees back from roads, trimming overhanging limbs, removing dead timber near roadways, etc. to keep roads open when stuff like this occurs is doable. It won’t be perfect and there are no guarantees, but if some chainsaw work and spraying defoilants adjacent to roads to kill brush buys another 20 minutes of unobstructed roads that might save lives. In Florida hurricane season is 6 months long and “not hurricane season” is the other 6 months; that’s when the power companies do their inspections and tree trimming and homeowners (should) do their preps. I’d think being similarly proactive on keeping roadways open in fire country could work the same way.

    As for protecting property, I can see the experts making home visits to deliver suggestions, but it’s up to the homeowners to heed the advice. And, there are any number of houses in any number of locations that no amount of preventive action would be able to keep from burning. Early and rapid evac is the only option.

    1. Aesop

      In fire country, they aren’t suggestions: you keep a nozzle and xxx feet of firehose, or you pay the piper.
      Ditto for brush clearance minimums.
      A pump and water source are highly recommended.
      (And frequently, unprepared property in high danger fire zones voids most insurance.)

      Besides the financial disincentive, come a fire, and crews will tell you in blistering detail why they’ll let House X’s substandard brush clear space be sacrificed, while setting up crews around the concrete cabin up he street with plenty of brush-free space around the house.

  18. Dyspeptic Gunsmith

    I’ve got lots of thoughts from the perspective as a guy with lots of wildland fire training and a couple of brush/grass fires under his belt.

    First big difference between this fire behavior and western fire behavior:

    Because this is a deciduous forest, there’s much less crowning behavior. This is a creeping/brush fire under a heavily timbered area, which is leaving huge amounts of fuel behind the burning activity that is unburned. This has consequences – large ones – for firefighters. The trees are in your way as you’re trying to move men & equipment into the fire area, more than occasionally falling over (which can kill your ass dead), and preventing you from having “safe black” areas for retreat. Not having a safe area for retreat makes fighting a wildland fire MUCH more complicated. You must have a safe area that can not burn (again). This is usually “safe black” in western fires – areas that have burned down to bare dirt. That’s where we retreat, that’s where we sleep, that’s where we pull the trucks for refueling/resupply, etc. You don’t sit on your butt in an area where there’s still fuel unburnt.

    The homes that are involved appear to me to have had no fuel management surrounding them. This is where homeowners consistently fail to plan for fire: get rid of the fuel that will bring the fire to your door (literally). The house construction is something I can’t critique from this video footage, but far too many homeowners and homebuilders use materials that are far too flammable in these situations. Cedar shake roofs are infamously flammable as hell’s own tinder and should be outlawed. Asphalt shingles are also a bad choice in areas surrounded by fuel. Steel roofs are far superior for houses located in environments like this.

    Next issue: firefighter initiative. There’s plenty of chaotic fire behavior you can see in this video. It isn’t in evidence throughout the entire transect he took getting out of the fire zone, but I counted at least six instances of “extreme” fire behavior – which is a sign to wildland firefighters to GTFO. Once you see chaotic, extreme behavior in fire, you should know that your ability to predict the path and progress of the fire, even at a very localized level, is nearly naught. Another thing: It’s dark. A BIG, BIG rule in wildland firefighting is that you don’t go into a fire in country you have not surveyed and scouted during the day. You don’t go into situations fighting fire downhill, period. Another big rule: lookouts who can watch your back. Where would these guys be? In western country, you can position a guy with experience and a BK handheld on the next ridge over – and he can watch your ass from across the canyon. Here? I have no idea.

    Violating those first two rules (going in for your first run at night, and fighting downhill) are very good, high likelihood ways to end up dead.

    They probably have limited wildland firefighting resources in this area. In our VFD, we have:
    – one combo structure/rescue/wildland truck, based on a F-550 frame
    – three wildland Type VI trucks, based on F-550’s
    – one structure tender
    – one converted M9xx 5-ton truck as a wildland tender
    – one structure/interface engine
    – one command/comm truck
    – one medical truck, with a fiberglass enclosure on the back
    – one snowcat (our area takes up on top of the mountains, even in winter)

    Notice something here? We’re heavily, heavily oriented towards wildland/interface fires.

    Most departments, chiefs and captains would look at us and start asking “Where’s your rehab truck? Where’s your ladder trucks? Where’s your second/third/fourth engines?”

    We don’t have any of those. We won’t have any of those – because our community’s biggest threat is wildfire coming into the built-up areas. Nearly every truck in this department is 4×4 (The 5-ton is 6×6 and can nearly climb trees and cliffs – we can get that tender into areas that amaze even us when we get out of the cab). The newest structure/interface engine is 4×4, and the old one that it replaced was 4×4 as well. The city department has one of their structure engines with 4×4.

    I’ll wager that most, maybe even all,, of the trucks in this area will be structure trucks. They haven’t had to deal with wildland fire, year after year after year. They might not have 4×4 on their structure trucks. They won’t have high clearance. They won’t be equipped with self-defense sweeps and a monitor that you can aim from the cab (as our new truck has) so that you can use the truck to reinforce a road without putting men outside into the heat and smoke. So those guys aren’t going into this situation – they’re going to get people out, and then work at containing the fire(s) on the flanks and heel. That’s it. They might not have the equipment, training or planning in place to allow them to make an aggressive attack in front of the head. I can’t fault their decisions and actions – especially in the dark.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Wow. I didn’t even understand that structure trucks and wildland trucks were different things. I knew there were different kinds of fire trucks, like hook and ladder and pumper trucks. But these details are knew. Of course, I don’t have any illusion I know anything about fighting fires. My fire drill is RUN UPWIND.

      1. Dyspeptic Gunsmith

        Structure trucks and wildland trucks are not only different in construction/upfit from the chassis, they also carry vastly different gear.

        Structure trucks will carry extension ladders, roof ladders (which are like extension ladders, but with hooks we can deploy over the ridgeline), tools for structure fires (axe, halligan, denver tools, doorknockers, etc), lots of fittings for adapting our pumps to hydrants, building fittings, hose fittings, etc. A structure truck might have one chainsaw on it, and that saw will typically have carbide teeth to hack through nails when we’re cutting a hole in the roof of a house (for ventilation). The seats in a structure engine will often have SCBA packs in the back of the seats (so the firefighters can finish getting suited up on the way to the fire), then more SCBA packs in a cabinet on the side of the truck, SCBA spare air bottles over the rear wheels and in nooks and crannies of the body. We’ll have RIT (rapid intervention team) tooling/kits (which will be rescue tools, another air bottle+regulator and quick-connector to air up a downed FF’s pack), rope, extraction rigs, etc. A structure engine’s pump will usually be driven off the PTO from the main engine; most structure trucks cannot “pump and roll” – you have to choose “Are we moving or pumping?” The pump on a structure truck can often move HUGE amounts of water – up to 300 to 500 GPM, and sometimes at pretty high pressure. Most structure trucks will have a two-stage pump, and you can select whether you want volume (single stage) or pressure (two stage). If you have to push water up a hill (or high into a building), you’ll choose the two-stage configuration.

        Wildland trucks, by comparison, are stripped down. We will carry less firefighting water (maybe 200 to 250 gallons vs. 750 to 1000 gallons on a structure engine), “Type VI” trucks are much lighter in gross weight, they’ll have a cg lower to the ground (even with 4WD), won’t have any SCBA’s, won’t have any ladders, won’t have the same level of rescue equipment on them. What they will have are 2 to 6 piss-pumps (hand-operated, 4-gallon backpack water rigs), tons of hand tools (flappers, rakes, Pulaski’s, McLeods, hoes, shovels, brush hooks), then two or three chainsaws (with HSS teeth, not carbide), protective chaps for every man operating a saw, the oil/gas combo tank for every saw, drip torches (for lighting backfires), lots of drinking water and Gatoraid, racks for wildland packs (which will droop low around your waist and run about 50 lbs). The pumping apparatus on a wildland truck is vastly different than a structure truck. There is often no “high pressure” two-stage pump on a wildland truck, as there is on a structure truck. Most all of our Type VI brush trucks have a V-twin, 18HP Honda engine to run the water pump. The pump might do 100 GPM at 100+ PSI – that’s about it. It will usually have a Class-A foam injector on it.

        Where wildland trucks differ quite widely from structure trucks is that we have lots more tools and equipment for using whatever water we can find – in a stream, pond, cattle tank, pool, where ever. We have “floater” pumps, which are little two-stroke gas engines that float on a puddle of water, and scream like a banshee as they pump quite a bit of water up a 1″ to 1-1/4″ hose back up to the truck. The truck’s ability to draft out of a puddle is often more versatile than on a structure truck. We usually carry two float pumps, then packs and packs of hose to get water from the float pumps to the truck, or from float pumps to the guys up on the fireline. On at least one of our wildland trucks, we’re carrying a Mark-3 pump, which does have a multi-stage pump and can pump water way the hell uphill from where the pump sits. A Mark-3 pump can pump over 100 GPM at over 100 PSI – and some variants up to 300+ PSI (which would push water a long, long ways uphill). Again, they scream like holy hell, but they work. We carry jerry cans with quick-connect fittings to feed fuel to the Mark-3’s. A five gallon can could keep a Mark-3 going for probably 4+ hours.

        There’s more bits and bobs we have on wildland trucks, but that gives you an idea of how different the equipment load is. Structure guys get their bunker gear and SCBA’s on before going in – there’s no bunker gear for wildland. You wear Nomex clothes and (if you’re smart) wool or cotton underwear (because the wildland clothes do nothing to stop wind, and when night comes and you’re not wearing long underwear, you’ll freeze your butt off unless you’re up next to the fireline).

        Wildland fires are very, very different from structure fires. At least in a structure fire, you can determine everyone is out and retreat and fight defensively from outside the structure when things get too big. In a wildland fire, you sometimes don’t get to choose whether you’re attacking, defending or running. In a structure fire, you can usually pour enough water on it to end it. In a wildland fire, water isn’t your primary firefighting tool – fuel depravation is.

    2. Quill_&_Blade

      You make some good points; so does Kieth at 18:29. As I said before, I’ve been here 23 years, but never seen anything like this. A number of things led up to this “perfect storm”. There are probably THOUSANDS of rental cabins around that area. They’re ubiquitous. They’re advertised as monetary ventures. You can’t walk 3 blocks in the tourist areas without someone trying to sell you part of a cabin timeshare, seriously. They’ve done a decent job of not butchering the scenery, by leaving a lot of trees in place; unless you consider mountainsides dotted with cabins a violation of the scenery. I don’t recall seeing -1- that wasn’t all wood. They often have this block basement like thing, but that’s minimal. From my perspective, they really don’t look bad. “Cabin” is not a little square survival swelling that Daniel Boone lived in. These are upscale, with gorgeous (wood) interiors. They have steep angled roofs, all natural color exteriors, and they perch them on the craziest embankments…better views. They really do look good. The roads are switchback curves going up the mountainsides, but you don’t see the roads for the trees. Never was a problem with the usual rain. That the guy in the video was able to drive over a fallen tree; was a miracle in itself. I don’t ever recall seeing one fall that was less than 10 inch diameter, and the branches prop the trunk up off the ground, always. My in laws move pianos, they have a tricky enough time getting them back in those areas, getting firetrucks up there in an emergency like this? Can’t imagine it.

  19. Keith

    The impression I’ve gotten from what has been written and reported about this event is it is largely unrepresented in it’s extent and speed combined with an unusual weather pattern.

    Lord be with those caught up in this and those on on the front lines. Amen.

  20. Pingback: Weekend Knowledge Dump- December 2, 2016Active Response Training | Active Response Training

  21. Bill

    “Nothing you can do to prepare your property will protect it from a fire like this.” This statement is flat-out wrong. There is a LOT that homeowners in the wildland urban interface can do to prepare their properties for wildfire. If you live in or near forests, read “The Fire Smart Homeowners Handbook: Preparing for and Surviving the Threat of Wildfire.” It tells you what to do, what tools you’ll need, how to do it, how to escape, and a whole lot more. An invaluable book!

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