Suppression's Changing Role

Fire suppression is something we're very good at because we've been doing it for a long time and spent a lot of money on it. In fact, we've become too good at it. In the last several years, as we go into the woods, we've seen the results of putting out as many fires as we could. The fuel buildup out there is huge, and it makes our jobs a lot harder.

There's a lot more that can burn, so fires can get a lot hotter. Plus it's that much harder for us to get around. When you look at old pictures and maps, you see how the ponderosa stands used to be a lot more open and park-like. In that kind of an area, you don't often even need to dig a fire line. It's easy to walk through and put out burning snags. But in the heavy understory that's grown up in a lot of places due to fire suppression you have to clear a big opening to try to stop the fire.

In general it's a lot easier and cheaper to stop a fire when it's small. If it takes off, the suppression effort can cost millions of dollars, and can be pretty ecologically damaging.

In areas where people have built houses in the woods, we don't have much choice -- we have to try to put the fires out even if it might be better for the habitat to let it burn. Of course we have to stay safe. We can't always save private property, especially if the weather turns against us.

The smokejumpers tend to be dropped into the higher elevations or wilderness areas where there aren't any roads. One thing we see sometimes are habitats that used to be ponderosa pine that have been converted into lodgepole pine habitat because now there are no low-intensity fires to maintain the ponderosa parks. Lodgepole pine, on the other hand, needs a hot fire to clean things out and start over. So if there is a big fire, they're what come back in.

We use a ground crew working with hand tools, chain saws, and water pumps for most small fires. If the flame lengths exceed a certain height, then we'll call in air support to drop water or retardant on the fire. That helps knock it down enough that we can work on it from the ground. When a fire gets really big, then we may have to bring in bulldozers to help dig a line in a spot we can defend.

We like to work at night when possible because the fire is generally calmer. But at times it can also be more dangerous than daytime because you can't see snags and rolling rocks as well.

We're getting a lot more involved in the prescribed burning programs, too. It's good training for us to get to work with fire in a more controlled situation.


Here are some of the types of crews and equipment we can use in fire suppression:

Dozer Crew - Any tracked vehicle with a blade for exposing mineral soil, with transportation and personnel for its operation.

Engine - Any ground vehicle providing specified levels of pumping, water, hose capacity, but with less than the specified level of personnel.

Hand Crew - A number of individuals that have been organized and trained and are supervised principally for operational assignments on an incident.

Hotshot Crew - A highly trained firefighting crew used primarily in hand line construction.

Smokejumper - A firefighter who travels to fires by aircraft and parachute.

Helirappeller - A firefighter equipped and trained to rappel from a helicopter to fight fire in areas where helicopters cannot land.

Helitack - Fire suppression using helicopters and trained airborne teams to achieve control of wildfires.


Air Tanker - Any fixed wing Aircraft certified by FAA as being capable of transporting and delivering fire retardant solutions.

Fire Retardant - Any substance except plain water that by chemical or physical action reduces flammability of fuels or slows their rate of combustion.

Andy Hayes