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Handline Construction for Forest Fire Control


NARRATOR When most people think about fighting fires, trucks, hoses and water come to mind. But with forest fires, a control line is used as the primary method of suppression. A control line includes all constructed and natural barriers and treated edges used to control a fire. A hand line is a type of control line where all fuels are removed, exposing the mineral soil. Hand line construction is the primary method for controlling a forest fire. The success of an initial attack is based on how well the hand line is located and constructed so that the fire cannot cross it. One basic rule for fighting fires is to fight aggressively but provide for safety first. When responding to a forest fire, you must first be properly clothed in personal protective equipment, such as lightweight Nomex clothing, helmet with shroud and goggles, leather gloves, boots, and if your agency requires, a fire shelter. When arriving on scene, first identify escape routes and safety zones. CREW BOSS The escape route is going to be the control line that has been created; back to this is a staging point. When it becomes unsafe past this area we will all progress out to 171. NARRATOR An escape route leads to a safety zone. A safety zone is an area void of flammable materials where firefighters can go and be safe from a wildfire. Recently burned areas, parking lots, waterbodies and ballfields can be safety zones. However, the area must be large enough to keep firefighters a distance of 4 times the flame height from any flammable materials. The next step is to appraise the overall fire situation and determine appropriate control actions. Take into account how the fire is currently reacting and how it will react. Identify safety issues and values at risk. CREW BOSS I’m on scene. Incident size at this time is approximately 4 acres, repeat 4 acres in size. It is uncontained. The best access for you is off Route 171 coming in on that access road flagged in red. Weather conditions — it’s been dry for this past week. NARRATOR This process is called size-up and must be on-going until the fire is fully extinguished. Go around the flanks of the fire as quickly and safely as possible or inspect it from a vantage point. If the fire is rapidly moving, don’t go around the head of it. CREW BOSS Radio check, test, test. FIREFIGHTER Test. NARRATOR Another important aspect of safety is communications. All personnel responding to the fire should always remain in contact with one another. Hand held radios are the preferred means of communication. FIREFIGHTER Is water coming back to me? RADIO RESPONSE That’s affirmative. He’s refilling. NARRATOR The purpose of constructing the hand line is to cut off the fire’s fuel supply by clearing flammable materials that allow the fire to spread, usually leaves, twigs and a thin layer of humus. Sometimes thick duff is encountered, especially in pine and hemlock stands. Duff is partially decomposed organic material of the forest floor beneath the litter of leaves, needles and twigs. It sometimes consists of a thick mat of tough fibrous roots and is capable of carrying fire. Putting water on a deep burning fire may appear to knock it down but the smoldering duff below may cause it to rekindle. The use of a hand line is superior to using water alone to stop the spread of fire, especially during drought conditions. CREW BOSS I’m just going to take a walk around to see if I can find any better control for you on that. NARRATOR Determining the location of the hand line is very important. Always anchor the hand line to a barrier or other control line. Barriers can be natural or man-made. Examples include trails, roads, streams, rocks or old burns. When deciding on where to construct a hand line, fuels, weather and topography must be considered. Take advantage of man-made or natural barriers and make them part of the line. Make the hand line as short and straight as possible; avoid sharp angles as these tend to intensify the fire activity. Avoid high hazard fuels, such as mountain laurel and logging slash, leaving them outside the hand line when possible. Once the hand line is located, construction can begin. One way to construct a hand line is called the progressive method where crew members using different tools advance together without changing relative positions in line. Allow enough clearance in between to provide safe working space for each member. The first crew member should have a cutting tool; a chainsaw is the most efficient. Trees, brush and logs should be removed only as wide as the hand line. Normally live trees greater than four inches do not need to be cut. Personal protective equipment is required when using a chainsaw, including eye and ear protection, chainsaw chaps and protective footwear. When cutting saplings, make cut horizontal cuts as close to the ground as possible to avoid leaving sharp edges. Cut down snags and low branches that overhang the line as soon as possible to avoid the spread of the fire. Scatter all the cut brush, branches and logs outside the hand line. However, if this material is partially burned, place it inside the line. A backpack pump is used to knock down flames, allowing crew members using hand tools to work directly on the fire’s edge. As the other crew members follow behind the pump, they use scraping tools and rakes to expose the mineral soil. All flammable materials must be removed in a strip wide enough to prevent the spread of the fire. A leaf blower is an efficient tool to remove leaves from the line. Eye and ear protection should be used when using the blower. Direct the blown leaves outside the hand line. A rake also works to remove leaves. A pulaski efficiently cuts through roots and stubborn duff. Cut duff with the mattock or hoe end. To prevent fire from creeping through dead roots, uncover and remove roots under the hand line. Once the duff has been cut, rakes or pulaskis can be used to roll the duff back exposing the mineral soil. The progressive method of line construction utilizes all tools to dig the hand line down to mineral soil. As the crew works and moves along as a unit, each person adds their share to the line as they progress. No passing or crowding is permitted. A safe working distance of at least 10 feet should be maintained between workers. A recommended lineup might be: flagger, sawyer, swamper or brush thrower, leaf blower, backpack pump, pulaski, scraping tools and rakes. During initial attack, the crew should concentrate on establishing a good hand line and stay out of the interior of the fire. CREW BOSS State Forestry McGuire, Command. FIREFIGHTER Go ahead Command. CREW BOSS I’m just walking down your west line, looks real good, looks like it’s holding nice. NARRATOR The hand line should be no wider than necessary. As a general rule, the width of the hand line should be 1 � times as wide as the dominant fuel is high. The usual width of the hand line cleared by chainsaw is about 3 or 4 feet but the width of the raked line that follows is seldom half that distance. If you arrive at the fire undermanned, as few as 2 or 3 people can construct a scratch line. A scratch line is an unfinished preliminary control line hastily established or constructed as an emergency measure to check the spread of the fire. Initially, this line does not have to be scraped down to mineral soil to stop a running fire. However the line should be improved as soon as possible. For a three person crew, a recommended lineup might be: leaf blower, pulaski and rake. Once the fire has been knocked down, work should proceed to improve the hand line that was just dug. The idea is to secure and hold the hand line by vigilantly patrolling to prevent any slopovers, suppress any spot fires, and extinguish any overlooked hot spots close to the line. Only after a good hand line has been established, should the crews begin mop-up along the edges. During mop up, available water should be used to ensure that the fire will be contained. CREW BOSS I want to do an after-action review because we can always improve on our abilities to fight fire. What went right, what didn’t go so well, what can we do to do better? I’ll start with you. FIREFIGHTER When we flanked it and hooked around the top, it got a little hot. If we had more backpack pumps, it would have helped tremendously. CREW BOSS I would concur. NARRATOR Remember – Get the hand line down to mineral soil; secure the edge before working toward the inside of the fire; and most important, fight fire aggressively but provide for safety first. Our forests are a precious resource, so to keep them clean, remove all flagging and trash before you clear the scene. For more information, contact the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection’s Forestry Division.

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