Wildfire knowledge could be a lifesaver
July 21, 2007
Fleeing from the path of a wildfire is not normally a concern – in a normal Utah summer. But a little firefighter’s knowledge could mean the difference between life and death.
Their lives depend on planning escape routes. But they may not be the only ones whose lives may be in danger.
Homeowners who refuse to evacuate in order to save their homes are at risk of being trapped by wildfires. Outdoor enthusiasts may also find themselves caught in the path.
Six major wildfires claimed three lives in Utah this summer. Record heat and dry conditions have heightened fire danger, and Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr. wants to ban fireworks on Pioneer Day.
"We might go into full restriction if things don’t change," said Sarah Wilkinson, an official at the National Forest Service office in Kamas. She said, in full restriction, no fires would be allowed, including designated campgrounds.
"You’re seeing extreme conditions this summer," said Summit County Fire Warden Bryce Boyer, whose responsibility centers around wildfires in Summit County.
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Boyer is concerned. He said the brush and trees in Summit County are similar to those of the Yellowstone fire of 1988.
"You have dry weather, hot temperatures, low humidity and several years of drought. We also had warm weather followed by cold .New growth was killed off by frost, then dried up."
With those conditions, fires can take on unusual, deadly properties vortex fires, like tornados of fire, he said. He spoke of ‘fire whirls," when horizontal tornadoes of fire roll across the land like a tumbleweed, taking everything in their paths.
The Milford Flat fire consumed more than 360,000 acres before being contained July 17. It was the largest known wildfire in Utah history.
Three men died in the Neola fire, in early July, when they tried to save a property from the oncoming fire, and were overcome by flames when the wind shifted.
But not even trained wildfire fighters are safe. The Esperanza fire in Cabazon, Calif., claimed five firefighter’s lives when a firestorm engulfed them before they had time to escape or put up emergency fire shelters.
I’m not trying to scare anyone, but if you don’t have proper training, you probably shouldn’t be in a fire-zone area," Boyer said.
Boyer said of those who may consider staying to defend their homes against a wildfire, "My best advice is, if you’re asked to leave, leave. A home can be replaced. A life can’t."
Boyer recommends that people "go back down the way they came."
"Call 911," he said, and let someone know where you are. Global-positioning satellite coordinates can help rescuers find a person before it’s too late.
If a fire is overtaking a fleeing person, Boyer recommends covering cover his mouth with a rag or bandana and staying low to avoid heavy smoke. A wet bandana is a bad idea, as someone’s lungs may end up inhaling superheated steam, capable of incapacitating a person in one breath.
Lakes and stream bottoms provide large, non combustible areas to seek refuge. Green meadows, or flat areas without vegetation that are four times the diameter of the flame height may provide safety, but he admits those may be hard to find.
For people who think they could outrun a fire, Boyer said, "I’ve seen flames travel at 70 miles per hour."
Fleeing up a hillside can turn deadly, as fire may shoot up a hill like the breath of a dragon.
"A fire can climb a ¼-mile hill in minutes – or seconds. The climbing flames will preheat the fuels in front of it, instantly catching them on fire. It can also drop embers far up the hillside," he said.
Saddles between mountains are prone to flames shooting through them. Worse are box or chimney canyons, which may draw a fire up them like the chimney of a fireplace.
"Get out early. There’s no guarantee you’re going to get out late," Boyer said.
Summit County areas Boyer sees as vulnerable to wildfires:
Summit Park is a major area of concern. It has a double hillside with multiple box canyons. It has dying pine trees. The dead trees haven’t been thinned. It is above an interstate. (Boyer said he sees interstates not as firebreaks, but as a starting point of fires, adding that people launch fireworks from roads, and cigarettes are thrown from cars.
The I-80 corridor, where Boyer said he has received 10 or 12 calls of people launching fireworks. "When the people start fires, they don’t try to put them out, they run, because they don’t want to get caught."
Weber Canyon has conifer stands and oak-brush stands, Boyer said, making it prone to a wildfire.