Mr. Kenneth L. Rice has been a San Diego fireman for 35 years, and chief of a 6-station battalion for 20. He says he didn’t know much about brushfires when he started. “It scared the heck out of me,” he claims, so he went to school to learn more.
How do forest fires compare to other natural disasters?
Well, there are more obvious means of combating fire. You have to understand that fire is a natural phenomenon. It’s made dangerous by people, because now we’ve got houses and humans. Because of the hazard to people, it makes fire more dangerous.
How many forest fires have you fought? About how many per year?
About half a dozen per year. Two-thirds are grassfires, and most are caused by lightning. Most are naturally caused, not like the Los Alamos fire. That was an escape fire, and you can’t do that. Some fires we just let burn, like in Alaska and on certain reservations. But in urban areas, you must put them out.
Can you describe what you see when you are on the scene of a forest fire?
Well, it’s the supreme challenge. It’s massive, it’s out of control. I usually go in the helicopter and look at the terrain, after which we get together and go over planning. We talk with people in the area, with experts, with meteorologists, to see what resources we have to throw at the fire. We work in shifts, sometimes 20-hour days.
Do you have an stories of firefighting experiences?
Well, you’re constantly outguessing the fire. You must make flexible decisions because the fire is always changing. And it can be very scary, when you’re out there facing 200-foot high flame lengths. It’s really hot. Wildland fires - it’s a dynamic thing. A structure fire is peanuts because it isn’t going anywhere. In a wildfire, there may be six different areas - where it’s shady, where there’s direct sunlight, where it’s reparian, and as soon as the fire hits it, it changes. Once it hits direct sunlight, for instance, it’s going to go like heck and you have to be prepared for it. We lose good firefighters every year.
What about the animals? Are they gone, out of there once they sense a fire?
They’re gone. They’re about as rare as a 100-pound damsel-in-distress. They’re always 400 pounds, I tell ya!
How long does it take to put a fire out?
In a city area, we can put it out in the same day. It’s called a one burn period. It’s accessible so we can get lots of firefighters there. For wildland fires, though, in lower elevations there is lighter cover, which burns quickly, so those fires burn out faster. In higher elevations there’s denser undergrowth, so there’s more fuel. There was a fire in Santa Anita that lasted from the 28th of December to the 4th of January, with more than 300 acres of inaccessible wildland that burned. It got so we had to monitor it at night and fight it during the day. It all depends; it might take anywhere up to a couple of weeks.
What sorts of methods do you use to fight a forest fire?
We drop chemicals that have three functions. First, they act as a retardant, slowing down the fire, and that buys us time. It is also an extinguishing agent for a short time, and it’s a fertilizer. We also use helicopters to drop water, which is real good because they can drop it right where we need it the most. We use bulldozers to cut away the fuel line, making a buffer zone around the burning area. We have a hand line, used to cut brush. We have hotshot crews, which are our best firefighters. They’re teams of 20 people, and no one has less than three years of experience. Then we have our Type II crews, who are not in the direct fire line. They cut brush and stuff. These are usually the convicts whom you see wearing the orange suits. Oh, and we also have a tactic called backfiring, which is a defensive tactic whose timing is very important. You set a backfire once the oxygen required for a fire to burn starts to get sucked up by the wildfire. It’s not the same thing as firing out, which is a common mistake that people make.
What sorts of equipment do you use?
For structural fires we have heavy armor - hoods, pants, and a breathing apparatus. Those guys are there are horrendously in shape. But for a wildfire, you can’t wear all the heavy equipment. The best you can do is a bandanna. We wear a cotton undershirt and lighter weight clothing made of nomex, which is a space-age material that doesn’t burn. There’s also a light weight helmet. We also use a bush hook, which is this scythe-like tool, to cut away the dense underbrush. Then we got guys coming after with pulaskis, which are axes used to cut away the medium growth. After them we have people holding rakes, which are used to clear grass and light cover, and finally people with shovels and little rakes.
Do you have any personal stories that you could share?
Well, there was a fire up in Big Sur…86,000 acres burned. We just fought it and fought it and fought it, and oh man, it was just miserable. It just kept going. There were 12,000 threatened structures, and it was all we could do just to keep it out of that area.
What are some preventative measures that people can take?
The important thing is clearance. You have to have a defensible space around your house so we can park a [fire] engine. You got to be able to move around the burning area. Clearing brush back to a minimum of 30 feet from your house. I also cut the brush back, trim it up four feet off the ground, and I don’t leave grass below. Remove all thin fuels from around your house - go in with chainsaws and cut away the brush. Keep flammables away from the house. Shake-shingle roofs are the single greatest cause of fire.
What should people do in the event that a forest fire breaks out nearby?
Just sit tight and see what happens. The local law enforcement will usually come evacuate. Firefighters will also come and do what’s necessary to protect your property. They know what areas are most likely to burn - open porches, overhanging decks, walkway covers, vents around the house - are the first to catch fire. They’ll come close drapes, all that stuff. Also don’t water your property, especially if you live in a dry area. The water will evaporate anyway, plus it takes away from water resources that firefighters need.
Has your view towards life been changed in any way after fighting so many fires?
Yes. I enjoy this job - it’s very very very rewarding. Doing a good job…to save someone’s life or save someone’s property is the most rewarding thing a person can do. I’m very lucky to be proud of the way I’ve spent my life. I never feel like I don’t want to go to work.