by Val Jaffe

Aerial bucket refill of super-skidgine tank.

How do you know if you are choosing the right tool for the wildfire incident task at-hand? Our general practice is to use the most familiar and easily accessible tools. In the wildland fire world, one might say hand tools, engines, dozers and aviation are the most familiar, recognized and accessible tools. Yet, for many reasons that we will consider in time, heavy equipment other than dozers, and used in forest management is often overlooked when ordering incident resources. TEST

Greater consideration for mechanized equipment and tactical approaches is overdue, particularly in light of longer, more costly and deadly wildfire seasons. Regardless of which burn policy is applied, when planning wildfire operations managers benefit from familiarity with the wide variety of available forestry machines. Feller bunchers, skidders, skidgines, excavators with various attachments, wheeled and tracked vehicles; many forestry machines types offer additional fire management options, from prevention and mitigation to suppression and rehab.

Travel corridor site clearance.

What machines might fit your assigned task? Consider a tracked excavator with boom-mounted mulching head attachment for ladder fuel reduction, or machine-mounted drum mulcher for reducing flammable understory vegetation. A task force of feller-bunchers working with excavators and skidders or skidgines can quickly improve travel safety along access corridors, create low impact fuel breaks and construct effective firelines. Skidgines can push dirt, deliver water and skid downed trees, brush and hazardous snags. They maximize safety for ground crews while providing flexible and remote support for burnouts, fire use and mop-up operations. Forestry machines offer ground and aviation crews fire management versatility; any hour, night and day.

Where do wildfire incident managers learn the capabilities and limitations of using heavy equipment? Agency training opportunities are still quite limited, often constrained to classrooms, static machine displays and on-the-job incident training. Proposals and requests for a national heavy equipment field academy have floated multiple times, but have never caught traction. [ref]

Organized non-agency fire training with forestry machines is even more rare. Contracted equipment operators offer their professional experience, as operators and advisors. Yet, field personnel with the weathered skills to mentor trainee heavy equipment bosses are tough to find these days. Agency line officers are at an additional disadvantage, although they must provide incident direction and make landscape scale decisions.

When mechanized operations are conducted without proper training, personnel safety can easily be compromised and lead to accidents or site damage. Preventable damage and injury involving heavy equipment become convenient reasons to exclude one of the safest firefighting resources. Maximizing personnel safety and operational efficiency during all forest fire phases are the primary reasons for deploying mechanized forces. Like aviation and other ground resources, specialized training and supervised experience are prerequisites for successful field operations.

Tool for the task

Fire managers that understand how to best match machine selections to the observed site conditions and assigned tasks make the best mechanized operations teams. Supporting positions, such as Heavy Equipment Technical Specialists (HETS), experienced Heavy Equipment Bosses (HEQB) and well-rated equipment operators can build the most effective fireline, night or day, with reduced risk to personnel and in less time. When cost-effective fire management is mandated, why not have mechanized strategies and tactics part of essential training at all levels?

“In red flag weather, a 3-machine task force (D5 Hi-track dozer in the lead, Timbco with hotsaw head, and a 400-gallon skidgine) put in 2.5 miles of fireline in mountainous terrain in 5 hours, at an estimated cost of $2,000.00”   S.O’Brien, HETS, Bear Gulch Fire, Montana, 2008

Doesn’t heavy equipment cause irreparable compaction and natural resource damage? you ask. It can, when used unwisely. It can also be the best fire tool for repairing damage to waterways, reducing soil runoff, eliminating hazard tree danger along forest area routes, and for creating wildlife habitat.

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