Friday, August 10, 2007
University of Connecticut Firefighter Christopher Renshaw is just one of the many brave Protective Services members who have answered the call to help tackle the devastating western wildfires; these members are part of the Connecticut State Wildfire Crew, a specialized force of firefighters called to assist the U.S. Forest Service when the government’s regular wildfire manpower becomes taxed. Chris recently returned from fighting fires in California. He spent a week in Modoc National Forest tackling the 8,000 acre Fletcher Fire, and after this fire was completely extinguished, Renshaw and his crew were sent to the Elk Complex Fire near Happy Camp, CA; this was a 17,000 acre fire, engulfing step hillsides in flames.
Training for wildfires differs from structural firefighting in that firefighters must become extremely knowledgeable of weather, and how this variable can rapidly change the mood of a fire. Specific weather patterns, topography, how fire behaves on a ridge versus flat ground, and how different vegetation fuels a fire are just some of the things wildland firefighters must become familiar with. There are also specific rules they must follow when fighting fires in the wilderness. They must be selective as to what vegetation to cut down, and must repair all fire lines, making the land look as though firefighters were never there. A lot of planning and tactical decisions are made before, and during, these fires to maximize land preservation. In addition, many fires occur in designated wilderness areas, meaning that the government has prohibited the use of motorized vehicles, making it extremely difficult to maneuver.
Firefighters must also learn other methods for extinguishing fires. Because it’s costly, frequently inaccessible, as well as ineffective when trying to cover large areas, water is almost never used in wildfires. A firefighter’s main tool is the Pulaski, a combo axe/hoe used to dig trenches, which removes the fuel (vegetation). They also start small controlled fires, which takes away the fuel from the larger fires, causing the fires to burn out. Helicopters may also be used to drop a slurry of fire retardant in an attempt to either smother the fire or slow it down for firefighters to get a better handle on it.
Because of their unpredictability, these wildfires can be some of the most dangerous conditions firefighters can encounter. One of the most important pieces of equipment firefighters must carry is their fire shelter, often referred to as a “shake and bake”. This giant piece of aluminum is used to cover a firefighter should he get overrun with fire. Because the temperature under these shelters can reach 400 degrees Fahrenheit, firefighters must also dig down into the soil to protect their airway.
Renshaw has volunteered for wildland firefighting tours in Oregon, Washington, Montana and California. We wish to acknowledge his bravery, and that of all our PSEC fire crew members. Below is a list of current members involved with the Connecticut Interstate Fire Crew (CIFC).
Mark Blazejak – Environmental Protection Maintainer 3 (DEP): Mike was assigned to Eastern Oregon as a Strike Team Leader Trainee. Mike pulled double duty, also being on the crew that went to the Sleeper Lake fire on the upper peninsula of Michigan.
Chris Renshaw – Fire Fighter (UConn FD): Chris was assigned to the 8,100 acre Fletcher Fire in California.
Greg Vantine – Environmental Protection Maintainer 3 (DEP): Greg was assigned to the Sleeper Lake Fire in Michigan.
Craig Nolan – Fire Fighter (CCSU): Craig was assigned to the Fletcher Fire.
Mike Shaw – Environmental Protection Maintainer 3 (DEP): Mike was assigned to the Sleeper Lake Fire, the Fletcher Fire and the Elk Complex Fire.