The Importance of Equipment Redundancy in Prescribed Fire

We had a good lesson in the need for redundancy in our prescribed fire operations this season.  Built-in redundancy is important in many aspects of our world, from business (multiple parts suppliers for a manufacturer) to ecology (e.g. multiple flowering species available to pollinators).  It’s no less important when conducting prescribed fires.  In our case, it turned out that our redundancy in fire equipment saved us from what could have been an uncomfortable situation.

Our burn unit for the day was a pretty simple one.  Twenty five acres of grassland research plots, with roads on two sides and a river on a third side.  The only possible escape was into more of our own grassland, (which was surrounded by cropland) but there was a wide trail road and some additional mowed area in between our unit and that grassland.  To burn the site, we had six crew, two ATV units with 120 gallon high-pressure sprayer trailers, a third ATV with a 25 gallon tank/electric pump, and a fire truck with 300 gallons of water in the back – plus assorted hand tools and backpack sprayers. 

This photo from a different fire shows the kind of ATV/Trailer unit we use on prescribed fires. They are normally extremely dependable and mobile fire units, and their high-pressure spray capability can snuff out fire very quickly. However, that only works when all the hoses and tires are functioning!

As we were lighting the first line, a high pressure hose on one of the ATV trailers burst, taking that sprayer out of commission.  We immediately called another staff person who was nearby (not part of the fire crew) and he took off to town for a replacement hose.  In the meantime, we made the decision to continue the fire since we still had the fire truck in reserve and really were only planning to use one ATV trailer anyway.  A little while later, one of our crew ran into a steel post and blew out a tire on the second ATV trailer.  That left us with the electric sprayer on the third ATV and the fire truck as our firefighting equipment – and a fire that was now backing into the wind along much of the 25 acre unit.  At that point, it was clear that we needed to shut the fire down until we could get at least one of the other two units fixed.  It took about 15 minutes to put out the backing fire – mostly with the small ATV sprayer, but we used the fire truck some too (mostly for practice).  About an hour later we had the hose fixed on one of ATV trailers, so we re-ignited the fire and finished it with no further incidents.

In this case, we escaped (poor word choice?) without any real problems from the equipment issues we faced on the fire.  The simple burn unit and good firebreaks made the issues much less stressful than if we’d been burning the other unit we were considering for the same day (a larger unit separated from a couple thousand acres of grassland by mowed firebreaks).  We were able to continue the fire even after the hose burst on the first trailer because we still had one trailer for our primary vehicle and the fire truck as a backup.  If we’d been burning the more complicated unit, we would have shut the fire down after the hose burst and waited until it was fixed to continue – because on that unit we would have been relying on both trailers.

It seems to me that stories of escaped prescribed fires usually fall into one of three categories.  The first category includes fires that are lost because people were completely inexperienced with fire and were unprepared in terms of weather forecast, needed equipment, and/or the number of necessary experienced crew.  The second category is an unexpected change in wind/humidity conditions (sometimes because of an incorrect forecast, but sometimes because a current and detailed forecast was never obtained).  The third category is the one I pay the most attention to, because it’s the most likely to apply to our work.  In that third category of escapes, something happens to one piece of equipment (flat tire, truck gets stuck, etc.) and while the crew is trying to adjust to that calamity, something else happens to compound the first problem (e.g., another truck gets stuck or the crew leaves one line to help with the first problem and the fire gets away). 

This photo shows our crew checking current weather conditions prior to starting a fire in 2009. Working with the most current and specific forecast possible and checking conditions before and during the burn can help limit surprises. Also, in the background is the used fire truck we purchased from a local volunteer department several years ago when they auctioned it off. It's handy to have it on hand when we burn, both as a backup firefighting vehicle and as a water supply to fill our other units. We don't get to use the lights and siren on public roads, though...

That compounding of problems – aka incidents within incidents – is a recurring theme among the relatively few escapes that occur when experienced crews are conducting prescribed fires.  Unlucky events will occur during prescribed fires, and the best preparations won’t prevent all of them.  However, preparation can help prevent those events from cascading into disaster.  It’s critical to have a good plan and an experienced crew that can make the right decisions during stressful situations, but it’s also critical to have redundancy in available equipment.  Whether it’s a backpack sprayer or 2-ton truck, it’s critically important to have a backup when something goes wrong with a piece of equipment you’re relying on to contain the fire.  In our case, having the fire truck in reserve allowed us to continue the fire after the first incident and helped shut it down after the second.  (Again, if we’d been on a more complex fire unit, we would have shut down the fire after the first incident.) 

I’ve conducted more than 150 prescribed fires, and I learn something from almost every one of them.  One of our crew this year asked me if I enjoy fires more or less as the years go by.  My initial response was that I enjoy them less because I’ve seen more examples of what can go wrong.  Upon reflection, it’s not that simple.  Experience certainly helps remind me to be cautious, but it also helps me to be better prepared.  Being prepared mentally – and having plenty of redundancy in equipment – makes surprises less surprising and easier to deal with. 

The fire in this example turned out to be nothing more than a good reminder for the crew and me about why it’s important to haul all that equipment to each of our fires – even the easy ones.  Being prepared for the worst-case scenario makes anything less than that seem very manageable… and manageable is exactly what I like in a prescribed fire.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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14 Responses to The Importance of Equipment Redundancy in Prescribed Fire

  1. David says:

    Good post Chris. We conduct 60 – 80 burns every year and stage water ahead of time at critical areas around the burn unit. The burn crew all have backpack pump cans. While it is nice to rely on UTV or vehicle pumper units (which are our primary tools) having water where you need it and the ability to dispense it (backpack pump can) is a good contingency plan.

    David

  2. Stephen Winter says:

    Good post and good philosophy (i.e., redundancy).

    • Stephen Winter says:

      It’s nice to be “over-prepared”, having equipment and people that are doing almost nothing during a typical burn. Their utility isn’t obvious when everything goes well, it’s when things go bad that they come in handy.

  3. Karen Hamburger says:

    Good advice
    Perhaps too late for a family in SW Nebraska that lost a mother and wife a few weeks ago to a burn that went very wrong.
    Peace
    Karen

  4. Steve Clubine says:

    Not listed among your equipment but maybe you had at least two–backpack blowers. I’m surprised how many experienced burners don’t carry these. Maybe it’s lack of experience with them. One can take the place of 3-4 people with backpack sprayers, broom rakes, and swatters.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Steve – We’ve never used backpack leafblowers on grass fires. In fact, I’ve never seen anyone in Nebraska use them. Woodland fires, yes, but not in grass. I’ve heard rumors about them in other places, but I’d love to hear more about how you use them in grass fires. I love how people develop regional tactics, but we need to share them around better!

    • David says:

      Just curious, how do you respond to a spot fire with a backpack blower?

      David

      • Stephen Winter says:

        The folks I’ve burned with in Oklahoma use backpack leaf blowers a fair amount. They’re usually kept in reserve while the ATVs and trucks with water are used in support of the torches. But when a spot occurs and a vehicle or ATV with water can’t get to it the backpack blowers are put into action. They put out a strong enough blast of air that if you stand in the unburned fuel (note – only on a back fire or a mellow flank fire) and aim the air stream at the base of the flames towards the blackened area that’s already burned, the flames are snuffed and most/much smoldering material is blown into the blackened area as well. Fire out. They work very well in both fine grass fuels and leaf litter for this purpose. Sometimes they’re used in mop up along the burn perimeter as well. There are models that also have a water tank and will blow a fine mist of water along with the air but the folks I’ve worked with consider it unnecessary added weight. The blast of air is enough for what they need to get done. Incidentally, even though the Oklahoma folks I burn with have the traditional backpack pumps (with the trombone style spray wand) that carry 4-5 gallons of water, I’ve never seen one used. The ones that are on the trucks when we burn are probably even empty. Most likely they’re held in double-reserve. If there’s a spot or escape that can’t be reached with an ATV or truck, and the leaf blowers are all being used, and the rakes are all being used, and someone is still standing around with nothing to do, maybe that person would fill up the backpack sprayer and squirt a little water.

  5. Stuart Allison says:

    Hello Chris – I’m needing to upgrade my safety equipment. Where do you get your trailers with 120 gallon tank and high pressure sprayer? Is there a single source or did you put that together yourself? Would you mind providing me with an estimate on cost? New equipment has to fit within my budget which is limited. If you would rather not post on the blog, please send me an email. Thank you for your help and keep up the blogging – I really enjoy it.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Hey Stuart,

      We built the trailers ourselves. We’ve built a few for others as well, so if you’re interested, let me know. I’d have to have our guy who builds them run some numbers before I can give you an estimate. If you’re interested, email or call me and we can more about the details.

      • Stuart Allison says:

        Hello Chris,
        I thought you probably built up those sprayers yourself. If you would ask your builder for some cost figures that would be extremely helpful. Please send them to me at my email: sallison@knox.edu. I tried to find your email in my address book but I don’t have it. Sorry about that. Thank you so much for any assistance you can give. Cheers.

  6. Daniel Thompson says:

    This reply is a month late, but I figure you’ll never regret receiving appreciation of your blog messages. I participate in more prescribed burns than lead, but I sure learn more as leader than helper. My own burns are very small. I made two mistakes this spring and learned immediately so a burn the next day was carried out much better. I always am pleased about your blogs. Thanks.

  7. Pingback: If You Play With Fire… | The Prairie Ecologist

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