The constant threat of wildland fire events seems to be growing more intense and destructive each year. Equipping arboricultural workers with the knowledge to address the looming risk of fires is critical to protecting not only the people on the ground, but the communities they serve. As tree work often turns into hazardous wildland fire operations, it is important to provide teams working in vulnerable areas with the right training, equipment and expertise to understand, respond and mitigate fire in an emergency situation.
Across the United States and Canada, the potential of devastating wildland fire events couldn’t be more apparent than it has been this spring. Early-season fire activity through the Midwest and southern states, along with the smoke from Canadian fires inundating much of the U.S., serves to emphasize the need for preparation. Tree and vegetation crews need to be prepared to respond to ignitions on the job site while taking steps to prevent ignition events altogether. Prevention is always the top priority, but in the event of ignition, it is critical to understand the right techniques to suppress and extinguish fires to prevent further spread.
Wildfire statistics emphasize the need to act
According to the National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC), approximately 7,577,183 acres (about the size of the state of Massachusetts) burned during 68,988 wildland fire events documented in the United States in 2022 alone. California is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of wildfire, seeing a five-year average of 1,223,881 acres (about twice the area of Yosemite National Park) burned annually between 2016 and 2020, according to Frontline Wildfire Defense (frontlinewildfire.com). Nationwide, more than 30 million homeowners are at risk of wildland fire events, and 58% of structure losses in wildland fires occur in “low-risk” areas, according to CoreLogic (corelogic.com).
“It is extremely important to provide tree crews with the tools, techniques and knowledge to recognize and mitigate wildfire hazards, especially when working in wildfire-prone areas such as the West Coast,” says Erick Palacios, CTSP, a master trainer and director of International Arborists Safety Training and Consulting.
“Tree contractors need to be more proactive in providing their employees with proper training to help them identify all hazards on site and what to do when a situation arises,” says Palacios. “Incidents do happen, but accidents often can be avoided with training and establishing solid, safe work practices and administrative controls, such as standard operating procedures, or SOPs, for your employees.”
To help reduce the impact of wildland fire on communities across the U.S., it is crucial to empower tree-industry operators with the knowledge needed to understand the concepts behind wildland fire, how it starts, how it grows and how we can mitigate the chances of a fire before one can begin.
Operating in high-fire-risk territory
Our company, Rancho Tree Service, a four-year TCIA member company based in Bakersfield, California, is raising the bar for wildland fire training with its tree-crew personnel. With much of their work being performed in high-fire-threat regions throughout California and the West Coast, management deemed it critical for the company to deploy a meaningful strategy to mitigate the risks of operating in regions traditionally subject to increased risk of fire events.
“Proactive wildfire training is key in reducing the risk potential of a fire being ignited by employees en route to, at and returning from the job site,” says Robert Calderon, CTSP, Rancho health and safety director. “By our employees possessing the fundamental skills to recognize the key factors in fire ignition, fire behavior, situational awareness and proper use of firefighting equipment, it only enhances their ability to recognize potential fire hazards and take preventive measures before disaster can strike.”
Many vegetation-management firms have already developed and implemented robust training protocols for their employees that replicate some of the same training given to wildland firefighters. This approach to training tree crews allows for a greater depth of knowledge on how fire occurs and how to properly utilize firefighting tools and equipment. It also gives the tree worker a more robust understanding of how they can prevent fire events by following strict standard operating procedures in high-fire-threat areas.
Job-hazard analysis and training
“A good job-hazard analysis is critical. We start every job with a thorough walkthrough where the crews review the scope of work, the possible hazards of the work site and how to mitigate them,” says Palacios. “An emergency response plan is also crucial and helps us be more prepared to handle any situation that might occur on site. It helps define who is doing what and who to contact in the event of an emergency like wildfire.”
Training tree crews in wildland-firefighting techniques while utilizing existing trainings, such as the S-110 Basic Wildland Fire Introduction and S-190 Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior – both developed by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) – provides a wealth of information. This information includes acquainting workers with basic knowledge surrounding topics such as the various types of fuels and the impact of topography and terrain on wildland fire. It includes how meteorological factors influence fire activity and other crucial knowledge for ensuring tree workers are prepared to tackle ignition events in a worst-case scenario on the job site.
“By providing regularly scheduled training for tree crews, Rancho Tree Service has developed a higher comprehensive understanding of highly receptive fuel beds and fire-mitigation efforts in the field,” says Josue Palacios, CTSP, operational risk manager for Rancho Tree Service. “And by embedding wildfire training as a mandatory annual requirement, we have further reduced the risk to personnel and the public by creating a culture that stops ignitions prior to work even beginning.”
Integrating wildland-fire advisors on staff
To further enhance the efficacy of field fire-safety operations, some tree and vegetation-management organizations are integrating wildland-fire advisors on staff to report daily on meteorological information such as weather, temperature and relative humidity, terrain and fuel conditions in work areas, red-flag warnings issued by the National Weather Service and other pertinent fire-focused data that can assist crews in being mindful of their work practices in high-risk work areas.
“We provide a daily incident and operational area report to all personnel consisting of environmental conditions in anticipated work areas and precautions to be taken for that operational shift,” says Calderon. “Reports also include information on expected terrain, red-flag conditions, fuel types for the area, current and expected temperatures, relative humidity for that day, Air Quality Index (AQI) ratings and the proper actions to be taken per the conditions present.”
Equipment and training
Beyond equipping and training every crew with the necessary field tools to address fire on the job site – a McLeod tool, a water-sprayer pack, a fire extinguisher and a shovel – each member of the Rancho Tree Service team is trained and certified annually on the proper use of a “water-buffalo” tank trailer. They learn how to operate the pump and hose along with the regular maintenance required on the trailer to ensure proper operation in those times when it may be needed.
Rancho personnel also are trained in S-110 and S-190 wildfire certifications from the NWCG, and are provided with annual refreshers on these trainings. These may be presented as seasonally appropriate safety-training events and team discussions in the field. Crews also are trained on understanding fire-threat levels provided by the U.S. Forest Service and CalFire to assist in a deeper understanding of wildland-fire-risk assessment in their work areas.
In addition to these efforts, Rancho Tree Service worked with a former U.S. Forest Service Hot Shot captain to develop and implement the Wildfire Pocket Guide, providing field crews with an accessible resource on wildland fire science, fuels and other pertinent information.
“The pocket guide is designed to be a readily available refresher on wildfire science,” says Josue Palacios. “It also includes vital information such as wildfire safety zones and escape routes, wildfire tool maintenance and troubleshooting and proper ‘water-buffalo’ pump operation.”
Another major consideration for tree-crew workers across the nation is exposure to wildland fire smoke on a job site, regardless of proximity to the active incident. Many tree crews often operate in areas where smoke may be present due to wildland fire incidents that may be a great distance away, but they are still subject to higher exposure levels due to working outdoors.
“We train all Rancho personnel in OSHA’s Protection from Wildfire Smoke regulations, along with providing them with the necessary daily information to make actionable decisions on smoke exposure,” says Calderon, “In addition to this, we provide a CalOSHA-compliant respirator training to ensure employees have the ability to properly operate a respirator in the event of excessive wildfire smoke present in the environment.”
These kinds of training efforts can make all the difference if a fire erupts on a job site due to sparks from equipment contact with metal or rocks, hot equipment placed or parked near vegetative fuels or other potential sources of ignition.
For tree-industry operators who are not sure where to begin addressing this critical concern in their own safety training programs, there is a wealth of resources available publicly that can enhance the understanding of field employees and the role they play in preventing and mitigating wildland-fire events attributed to job-site activity.
“Some great resources to start with would be TCIA’s EHAP (Electrical Hazards Awareness Program) and resources from the U.S. Forest Service, CalFire and the National Wildfire Coordinating Group,” says Josue Palacios. “These are great resources for finding practical and scientifically sound information that is accessible to help tree contractors better understand and identify hazards that pose a threat on the work site.”
As wildland fire remains an active threat year-round throughout many regions of the United States and Canada, the importance of developing, implementing, maintaining and refining a meaningful wildland-fire-awareness-and-training infrastructure is critical. In doing so, we are not only enhancing the safety of tree-crew field operations, but also are enhancing public safety through wildland-fire prevention efforts in high-fire-threat regions throughout the country.
Geoffrey Taylor holds a Master of Arts in organizational leadership from Fresno Pacific University, is a freelance journalist specializing in the vegetation-management industry and currently serves as director of business development for Rancho Tree Service, a four-year TCIA member company based in Bakersfield, Calif.