Tips on the fire line

June 17, 2011

My rental SUV smells like a junior high school locker room manned by a chain-cigar-smoking gym instructor and I am standing on the side of the road with my pants and shirt half off cleaning myself with baby wipes and I am itching in areas that are not suppose to itch like that… yeah, I am in the field covering a wildfire.

Luckily I keep a “go” bag with all my own fire gear in it. I got the call in the evening and had arrangements to fly to Albuquerque, New Mexico, the next morning. I was being sent to cover the Wallow Wildfire, which has turned into Arizona’s largest fire in history, and was right on the border with New Mexico heading to the community of Luna, New Mexico. Thankfully I had editors that trusted me and knew I had been to a few of these rodeos before and would let me make the calls as to where I would go for photos and take the risk of getting out ahead of the fire.

Much of the media had headed to the northern edge of the wildfire and the towns of Springerville and Eager, Arizona. I had heard nothing but horror stories about trying to get any work done up there. The stories I had heard included hordes of media descending into these small towns making it very difficult to find a unique story. I had also heard from media about how hard it was to work with local enforcement and that even the Public Information officers (PIOs) were taking media nowhere near any real fire action and at times took them away from the visuals and stories.

So, with that knowledge I felt good about getting out on my own and taking a different route. Once landed I quickly threw on my fire gear which included a hardhat, goggles, fire resistant shirt and pants, all leather gloves, steel tipped boots and most importantly a forest service approved fire shelter. This whole kit cost about $700 to put together and I pride myself on owning my own kit. The reason being is that if you want to get anywhere near an active wildfire you have to have all these items on and if you have your own kit, you are not dependent on fire officials loaning you gear if they have it to get you on a fire line. You absolutely cannot show up in a fire camp in shorts and sandals and expect to get onto a fire line, let alone be taken seriously.

On my way to Luna I secured accommodations to sleep in Reserve. There were no hotel rooms available so I was able to rent a dirty, beat up Winnebago mobile home in an RV park that probably hasn’t moved in 30 years. By mid way through the assignment it would be the equivalent of a resort hotel. I paid the folks that own it for the week but also told them I may not be in it much at all as I may be sleeping out near the fire. They were great and would hold it for me even if I wasn’t there and would allow other media to stay in it as long as those media told them that I said it was okay. By the end of the assignment it had turned into a media flop house.

With a dusty “bed” secured I headed out for Luna. On the way, I confirmed it was on pre-evacuation notice and the check point on the road between the two towns may turn into a road block. Once I got into Luna I decided it was best to stay there for the night. The idea being that if Luna did get evacuated I would have already passed the check point that would surely become a roadblock.

I ended up sleeping in my rental SUV in between making feature pics. Never go to a wildfire in a car. Get a 4×4 SUV or truck. Nothing screams media like a compact rental car. Plus, I was on a wildfire in the west, you can guarantee I was going to get off road with it searching for good pics. I ended up sleeping two nights in my rental SUV, eating vienna sausages and cold ravioli right out of the can to keep me going. After the second night I found the last package of baby-wipes at the one gas station in town and took a road side bath with them. Nothing says sexy photojournalist like sitting on the side of the road cleaning yourself up with baby wipes and having oily smoke smelling mud matted hair.

After two nights in the SUV I was able to meet up with reporter, Zelie Pollon. Then it got real as she was able to get me access to the fire lines. Over the course of the next few days I was able to make four runs to the fire lines and get near the town of Alpine, Arizona, where no other media was being allowed. The key to getting real access was we were professional, fully equipped and well behaved. We minded the safety protocol and directions we were given. Soon after my photos went on the wire, other news agencies tried getting press into where we were. But by then, we had the photos others were struggling for.

On two separate occasions I let TV crews ride in my vehicle with me. A tip to any TV journalist, fires and wildland firefighters could care less about your deadlines for live shots at five, six and ten, they have bigger priorities. I have seen access ruined for journalists all over the place because of the actions of a few rude or dumb ones.

A last drink at Uncle Bill’s bar with a waitress that would have rather closed shop than serve me a whiskey and coke served well for the Wallow Fire telling me to “Go home.”

A couple tips I cannot stress enough are;
– Spend the money and get properly and fully equipped if you want close access and want to be taken seriously. Hard hat, goggles, leather gloves, sturdy leather hiking boots, fire resistant (nomex) pants and shirt and most importantly, a current model fire-shelter. Spend the money for it and hope you will never have to use it.

-Bring plenty of water and simple food. I survived much of the time on gatorade and poptarts.

– Be ready for long days. My shortest day was 14 hours.

– Rent a real SUV (not a crossover) with four-wheel drive and good ground clearance.

– Always back into where you are parking. It saves time to pull straight out if you and others are in a hurry if the fire is approaching.

– When you leave your vehicle, do not lock it and leave your keys in it. Or do what I do, I leave the keys in with the gas cap. That way if you get injured or burned others can jump in your car and escape.

– Pack light and be ready to move. No one is going to know or care if you have clean underwear on. Forget about being clean, comfortable and pretty. You are at a wildfire. You will look and smell like crap… own it.

– And lastly, these fires effect real people and destroy real lives. You, your ego, what your editor wants and your publication means nothing to it or them. Treat the firefighters, the victims of the fire and the fire itself with the utmost respect. By covering some of this stuff, you are living the dream, do it well.


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Nice write up.

Two things I believe you’ve forgotten:

I’ve covered wildfires in Colorado many times and I always had 2 gallons of fresh water in sealed containers, extra food, and even some camping gear.

Posted by pabloconrad | Report as abusive

My former team learned a lot over the years covering some of the largest fires in the nation in Southern California. It was helpful that some of us had experience on the fire line in our youth. Photographers and Editor: If you have communication, use it!

Wildland Safety Gear: (prices may have changed a bit)
1. $14.50 Wildland Gloves
2. $70.00 Nomex Shirt*
3. $70.00 Nomex Pants*
4. $25.00 Wildland helmet Model FH911C
5. (n/a) Wildland helmet assembly
6. $23.00 Goggles
7. $109.00 Fire Shelter (No Norair Lancs/Plastics, Metor Plastics or Cecile units)
8. $20.00 Wildland Nomex hood
9. $44.95 Web Gear (holds two canteens* Not included, fire shelter and fanny pack)
10. $20.00 Two canteens
11. $150.00 Boots

Total: $546.45 per team member

Standards for Fire Survival
“Watch Out Situation”

1. Fire not scouted and sized up
2. In country not seen daylight
3. Safety zones and escape routes not identified
4. Unfamiliar with weather and local factors influencing fire behavior
5. Uninformed on strategy, tactics and hazards
6. Instructions and assignments not clear
7. No communication link with crew members or supervisor
8. Constructing fireline without safe anchor point
9. Building fireline downhill with fire below
10. Attempting frontal assault on fire
11. Unburned fuel between you and the fire
12. Cannot see main fire, not in contact with anyone who can see main fire
13. On a hillside where rolling material can ignite fuel below
14. Weather getting hotter and drier
15. Wind increases and/or changes direction
16. Getting frequent spot fires across line
17. Terrain and fuels make escape to safety zones difficult
18. Taking a nap near the fireline

Snag Safety

Environmental conditions that increase snag hazards:
1. Strong winds
2. Night operations
3. Steep slopes
4. Diseased or bug-kill areas

Hazard tree indicators:

1. Trees have been burning for an extended period
2. High risk tree species (rot and shallow root system)
3. Numerous down trees
4. Dead or broken tops and limbs overhead
5. Accumulation of down limbs
6. Absence of needles, bark or limbs
7. Leaning or hung-up trees

Safety Zone Guidelines

1. Avoid locations that are downward from the fire.
2. Avoid locations that are in chimneys, saddles or narrow canyons
3. Avoid locations that require a steep uphill escape route (greater than 50%)
4. Take advantage of heat barriers such as lee side of ridges, large rocks, or solid structures
5. Burn out safety zones prior to flame front approach
For radiant heat only, the distance of separation between the firefighter and the flames must be at least four times the maximum flame height. This distance must be maintained on all sides, if the fire has the ability to burn completely around the safety zone.
EXAMPE: Ten foot high flames equals forty feet of safety from firefighter to flame approx. 1/10 of and acre (One acre is approximately the size of a football field or exactly 208 feet x 208 feet.)

Burn Injury Treatment:

1. Remove person from heat source, extinguish with water.
2. Provide basic first aid

First Degree – Affected skin’s outer layer. Redness, mild swelling, tenderness, mild to moderate pain.
Second Degree – Extends through entire outer layer and into inner layer of skin. Blisters, swelling, weeping of fluids and severe pain.
Third Degree – Extends through all skin layers and into underlying fat, muscle, bone, Discoloration (charred white or cherry red), leathery, parchment-like, dry appearance. Pain is absent.
“ RULE OF NINE” for determining area of burn:
Head 9%
Back/Front Torso 18%
Right/Left arm 9%
Right/Left leg 9%

3. Cut away burned clothing. DO NOT cut away clothing stuck to burned skin.
4. Apply cool, clear water over burned area. DO NOT soak person or use cold water and ice packs. This encourages hypothermia.
5. Cover burned area with sterile dressing, moisten with saline solution, and apply dry dressing on top.
6. For severe burns or burns covering large area of body-wrap in clean, sterile sheet followed by plastic sheet. Place inside sleeping bag or cover with insulated blanket.
7. Avoid hypothermia and overheating
8. Monitor airway, breathing and circulation (ABCs) and keep burned areas moist.

Last Resort Survival:

Escape if you can:

1. Drop any gear not needed for fire shelter deployment
2. You might be able to hold fire shelter as a heat shield as you move.
3. In LIGHT FUELS you may be able to move back through the flames into the burned area.
4. If you are on the flank of the fire, try to get below the fire.
5. Consider vehicles or helicopters for escape

Find a survivable area:

1. Stay out of hazardous terrain features
2. Use bodies of water that are more than two feet deep
3. In LIGHT FULES you may be able to light an escape fire
4. In other fuels, you may be able to light a backfire
5. Call for helicopter or retardant drops
6. Cut and scatter fuels if there is time
7. Us any available heat barriers (structures, large rock, dozer berms)
8. Consider vehicle traffic hazards on roads

Pick a fire shelter deployment site:

1. Find the lowest point possible
2. Maximize distance from nearest aerial fuels or heavy fuels
3. Pick a surface that allows the fire shelter to seal and remove ground fuels
4. Get into the fire shelter before the flame front hits
5. Position your feet toward the fire and hold down the fire shelter
6. Keep your face pressed to the ground
7. Deploy next to each other and keep talking


1. Extremely heavy ember showers
2. Superheated air blast to hit before the flame front hits
3. Noise and turbulent powerful winds hitting the fire shelter
4. Pin holes in the fire shelter that allow fire glow inside
5. Heat inside the shelter = Extreme heat outside
6. Deployments have lasted up to 90 minutes
7. When in doubt wait it out

Posted by Gmiller | Report as abusive

You are right on. I will get it added.

Posted by Jimurquhart | Report as abusive

As a former wildland firefighter, I know they are really particular about footwear. You don’t want steel toed shoes, they will heat up near fire. You want stiff toed shoes. They also require the boot cuff to be at least 8 inches tall, to avoid embers slipping inside the boot. And finally, the boot should be all leather and no synthetics, because leather won’t melt under heat. The boots in your first shot meet most of those requirements to be okay. The fire fighter sitting down in the picture has the classic boot example.

Posted by brooks_w | Report as abusive

Congrats, Jim, nice write up. I´ve done some fire work here in Europe where, unfortunatly, wildfires (and not so wild ones) are a summer event, almost every year.

One thing I´ve used to keep ahead of my fellow media hogs is a radio scanner loaded with the emergency services frequencies. I can hear where the action is and from there I can make a better idea of where to go.

Regarding the car, besides parking in a fashion that you can move out quickly, it´s very important that it´s parked in a way that won´t interfere with the emergency veichles. I once got asked to move mine and felt very embarassed.

Maintaining good relations with the local emergency officials allows you to go far. I make a point in not forgetting these guys in times of little or no action, like winter or quiet summer fire seasons, running stories about stuff like their training programs, promotions, anniversaries, etc.

Posted by arroja | Report as abusive

Thanks Jim, its a very useful blog and tips

Posted by beaw | Report as abusive