While some have blamed chaparral as causing the wildfire problem in California.
The real issue is that wildfires driven by strong winds do not need much fuel to cause significant damage.
One of the common denominators
in firefighter fatalities
is the presence of
fine, grassy fuels
One of the key lessons taught in basic wildland firefighter training is the false sense of security fine, grassy fuels give during a fire. People think shrubs and trees and imagine huge fires and danger. A grass fire, not so much. The problem is that grassy fuels ignite incredibly fast and produce huge amounts of heat in a second. Anyone caught in the way is usually burned over and either killed or seriously injured.
Two men attempting to suppress a wildfire are surprised by the sudden flare up in fine, grassy fuels. They barely escaped.
The million acre grass fire
Cattle try to escape a Texas grass fire in 2011. Photo: Huffington News.
Ranch buildings burn in a 2017 Texas grass fire. Photo: Amarillo Globe News.
"In March 2006, Texas experienced the largest wildfires in state history with approximately one million acres burned and 12 reported human deaths. This wildfire outbreak resulted in the largest loss of life from wildfires in the United States in 2006. Conditions in the Texas Panhandle were ideal for grassfires; the area had been in a drought for 11 months and under extremely critical drought conditions for five months."
"The wildfires moved 45 miles in just nine hours with a spread rate of five miles an hour and flame lengths of greater than 11 feet."
"The environmental and weather conditions in the Panhandle in March converged into a “perfect storm” situation for grass wildfires. Over the past two decades, the Panhandle area of Texas has experienced dramatic changes in land use moving from cultivated acreage to grassland and increasing the amount of fuel available for fires. Some areas of the Panhandle have also experienced population growth putting more people and more property at risk from wildfires."
Full report available here.
Violating the most important firefighter safety rules, a firefighter stands in unburned flashy fuels during a 2017 Texas grass fire. Photo: Justin Sullivan.
Non-native grass and weeds are a significant source of fuel
in California Wildfires
Massive sea of weedy mustard and non-native grasses fill the landscape after the 2018 Woolsey Fire, off Interstate 101, looking north near Agoura, CA.
Fine, grassy fuels like these on Kanan Rd, off Interstate 101, in the Santa Monica Mountains, CA, were major contributors to the speed and rate of spread of both the 2018 Woolsey and 2017 Thomas Fires.
Grazing is one of the primary reasons there are so many flammable, non-native grasses and weeds on the landscape.
Firefighter Fatalities in Huge Grass Fire, Greece
On July 11, 2007, three seasonal firefighters lost their life while firefighting near the village of Doxaro, in the prefecture of Rethymnon, in Crete. A fourth firefighter sustained extensive burns and is fighting for his life in a hospital in Athens.
The fire started at 13:20 in an area with low shrubby vegetation called “phrygana” bordering agricultural vegetation. According to the official announcement of the Greek Fire Corps, the total firefighting forces mobilized were 11 fire trucks with 30 firefighters, a Kamov-32 helicopter, two Canadair amphibian water bombers, and two handcrews of 8 firefighters each. It is unlikely that all these forces were on the fire at the time of the accident.
The fire was probably due to arson. Such events are common in Crete where shepherds regularly burn (illegally) the low thorny shrubs (mainly Sarcopoterium spinosum) on the overgrazed rocky land, in an effort to stimulate growth of new palatable forbs and grasses for their goats. The wind was not very strong and fire behavior in the phrygana vegetation did not appear threatening.
The accident happened just before 17:00. Based on the images projected on TV reports and on interviews of firefighters immediately after the accident, the firefighters tried to control the fire at the bottom and left side of a narrow steep canyon, using hoses from a fire truck that had stopped midslope on an unpaved road. They achieved this and retreated back on the road while there were small flames at some points on the opposite site of the canyon where the vegetation had not burned.
Four firefighters of one of the two handcrews moved on that slope trying to extinguish these small flames with backpack pumps. At that moment the fire moved unexpectedly to unburned fuels under them at the
bottom of the canyon. Helped by the nature of the fine fuels, the steep slope (more than 40%) and probably a wind gust, the fire became intense in seconds and started moving upslope towards the four firefighters. They started running but they made the choice to run along the steep slope moving further into the canyon where the fuels had not burned. The fire accelerated in the canyon behind them. They shouted for help on the radio. This is when their colleagues near the truck realized they were in grave danger but they could no react in the smoke-filled environment of the canyon.
The three firefighters fell after running for about 200 m. The fourth firefighter managed to climb a little further and protect himself in a little cave-like depression. According to the TV reports he suffered damage to his lungs in addition to receiving second degree burns over 40% of his body. His condition is still critical. According to the accounts of the firefighters who witnessed the evolution of the accident, the time between the blow-up and the fatality was not longer than five minutes. The four firefighters were 34 to 40 years old with 5-7 years of experience. According to their comrades they all were in good physical shape.
Although it will be a long time before any official investigation reports, it appears that the two main reasons behind this accident are topography (box-canyon, Y-shaped near the point where the firefighters fell) and light flashy fuels. A third factor that may have played a critical role, since it was mentioned in some witness reports, is the firefighting activity of the Kamov-32 helicopter which produces a very strong downdraft. If it did make a drop in the canyon close to the area where the firefighters were operating, it could very well be the cause of the fire spotting to unburned fuels below the four firefighters and starting the blow-up.
From Firenet (International Association of Wildland Fire).