Handcrews are the infantry of wildland firefighting forces. Crews of 18 - 20 men and women use hand tools such as pulaskis and shovels to cut containment lines into the soil around a fire.
Handcrews eliminate hotspots, so new fires won't start, and monitor unburned areas to make sure sparks don't jump the line and start new fires.
Handcrews also work to reduce fire risks by removing flammable vegetation from wildland areas. These firefighters are in excellent physical condition. They may spend 12 hours or more working on the fire perimeter. A typical work day for a handcrew is filled with dirt, smoke, heat, and cold.
U.S. Forest Service handcrews, which typically consist of 20 men and women, serve as the infantry of wildland firefighters. There are five types of handcrews: Type 1 Interagency Hotshot Crews (IHC), Type 1, Type 2 – Initial Attack (IA), Type 2, and Type 3.
Working side by side, the crews’ main responsibilities are to construct “firelines” – which look a lot like trails – around wildfires to contain and control them by removing fuel that wildfires need to spread. To do this, handcrews use tools like Pulaskis, shovels, and chainsaws to clear flammable materials and scrape or dig to mineral soil. Hand crews also burn-out fire areas, and mop up after fires.
In short grasses and other types of light fuels, a 12 to 36 inch wide fireline should halt the advance of the fire. In denser and larger fuels, such as timber, a fireline is typically merely a starting point. It may take a more than 100 feet wide fireline to halt the fire’s spread. To achieve this, firefighters often conduct burnouts. If conditions, such as wind, permit, handcrews will start a fire at the fireline to burn towards the approaching main fire. With all of the flammable materials in its path depleted, the fire should die.
Handcrews typically begin constructing fireline from an anchor point. An anchor point can be a road, a lake, a stream or river, or a large rock outcropping. It is used to minimize the chance of the handcrew being flanked by the fire while the fireline is being constructed.
To help construct firelines, handcrews often request support from airtankers and helicopters. Drops of fire retardant can reduce the intensity and rate of spread of wildfires while drops of water can cool hot spots.
In addition to digging firelines, handcrews cut open smoldering trees to put out the sparks and spread water dropped by helicopters or supplied by engine crews. When water is not available, handcrews move everything from a hot spot, separating burning limbs and coals and covering them with dirt. They also patrol firelines to make sure the fire stays within them.
Safety is the number one priority in wildland firefighting. Safety is based on Risk Management; “Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes, and Safety Zones” (also known as LCES; the 10 Standard Firefighting Orders and the 18 Watchout Situations; and other concepts, principles, and procedures.