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FROM THE CHIEF'S CORNER: STRUCTURE TRIAGE DURING WILDFIRES




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By Fire Chief Sam DiGiovanna
East County Magazine “In-House” Fire Chief
June 28, 2012 (San Diego’s East County)--The last couple issues we discussed how you as a homeowner living in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) can create defensible space as fire season truly is “year – round.”

 

It’s important to remember a WUI is a rapid-fire incident. As firefighters we lay out our plans for the tactical operations during a WUI event, it’s imperative that we make quick but well-thought-out decisions that reflect life safety issues for both responders and citizens first, followed by property conservation.

Structure Triage is ‘generally’ when strike teams (5 same type vehicles and a leader) prepare and set up and defend homes prior to an advancing fire-front approaches (there are times when single resources can/do structure protection). The strike team leader strategically directs what resources he/she wants and where to place the resources at the structures they are assigned to protect.
Hopefully by showing how we can determine the safest way to protect your property as first responders, you’ll learn how to help us – help you!

Like Triaging “Patients” at a multiple patient medical incidents:
On the engine operations side of things, if we look at our “patients,” or structures, during a WUI event, our training teaches us to categorize the patients in ways that allow us to better “care” for them.

  • Green category: These properties could be likened to the “walking wounded.” The homeowners have put effort into mitigating the hazards of these structures, so they will more than likely survive the event without extensive firefighting efforts or intervention. These homes are often built out of fire-resistive materials and landscaping, and they’ll have a good amount of survivable space around them, will be visible from the street, and feature good ingress and egress routes. With these types of homes, we can focus our efforts on simply stopping the fire from encroaching on the property, if needed. These types of properties can also act as possible safety areas for our folks if crews need to pull back and wait for the fire to pass.
  • Yellow category: These homes may need some attention from an engine company that includes moving flammable lawn furniture away from the property or removing a wood pile from near the structure. Access may be a little more limited, as the driveway may be long or narrow, making it difficult for apparatus to pass each other. And these homes may need some routine patrols during or after the fire front has passed. If enough resources are on hand, it may be wise to station an engine at the location to extinguish any small fires that could ignite from embers in the air. As with the green category, these types of properties won’t have many issues, so they may also be considered for use as a safety zone, as firefighters may be able to ride out a blow-up without too much trouble.
  • Red category: These are the immediate patients that will require some fast, effective work on our part in a short period of time. This may entail physically removing hazards, such as the wood piles, “stuff” that people collect around their homes or actual fuels, such as trees and/or brush that may be growing near or up against the home. Unlike the previous categories, with these homes, we will need to ask the question, will the amount of time and resources needed to protect this home really make a difference in its survivability? More than likely, these areas will not serve as safety zones, so crews will have to get in, get their work done and get out in time to get to a safety zone or move on to the next victim. Further, these types of homes will definitely need attention after the fire event. Crews will need to be able to go back as soon as possible to clean up around these structures, as more than likely there will be some lingering issues either from collateral fires or embers lodged in vents or decks.
  • Black category: Unfortunately, these are the dead and the dying in the triage system. These structures simply cannot be saved. The homeowner has not done anything to mitigate hazards, the home may be built mid-slope or at the top of a chimney or chute, and there may be only one means of ingress/egress, but it’s often overgrown with vegetation, which makes it impossible for apparatus to use. There is no safety zone or any way for firefighters to retreat quickly if needed. Simply put, these homes will require too much time, effort, resources and risk to affect any positive outcome. Just as in medical triage, given the conditions, we must commit our resources to other structures and places that we think we will have a positive outcome. We simply cannot risk harm to our firefighters if the homeowners haven’t taken responsibility for their home’s safety and survivability.
Which “patient” does your property categorize in? It might be a good time for that “checkup” and keep you and your property healthy!

Things to Remember:

As firefighters, when a WUI fire occurs, we must keep in mind all of our preplanning. If we haven’t had the opportunity to preplan an area (like resources from other communities coming to assist), then we have to rapidly assess the area and structures while the incident is occurring and keep firefighter safety in mind at all times.
Remember: Structural triage is much like medical triage when it comes to deciding where to dedicate our efforts.

More often than not, there won’t be enough resources available to fight an offensive structural firefight, and the wildland fire and perform all the other tactics that will need to occur simultaneously.

Most importantly, we maintain situational awareness at all times and think decisively—remember that possessions are important, but they’re not worth a firefighter’s life.