Training Forestry Workers to Safely Fight Small Forest Fires

Wildland fires are dangerous. Fighting such fires is a high risk business. For instance, based on US Forest Service statistics, the most common cause of fatal incidents in the 1990 to 2000 period was burnover followed by significant fatalities in aircraft related accidents, heart attacks, and vehicle accidents.

Wildland fires are dangerous. Fighting such fires is a high risk business. For instance, based on US Forest Service statistics, the most common cause of fatal incidents in the 1990 to 2000 period was burnover followed by significant fatalities in aircraft related accidents, heart attacks, and vehicle accidents.

Having the knowledge of such past experiences, as well as the knowledge of fire behaviour, allows us to improve the skills required to work safely on a fireline. For instance, most burnovers occur during the initial attack, or extended initial attack. Those who initiate such attacks are typically part of small crews who do not fight fires on a regular basis, have little knowledge of current fire weather, inadequate communication, inadequate equipment resources, inadequate personal protection equipment, and no direction from higher incident management teams. In short, they lack the basic understanding which allows them to determine when to leave the fire location in order to protect them.

That leads us to the question of why such relatively untrained individuals are involved in initial attacks.

There are provincial regulations in place to ensure that those working in a forestry site, who happen upon a wildfire, will attempt to suppress wildfires before they get out of control. In addition there are regulations intended to protect the safety of those fighting forest fires. The two key regulations are: The Forest Fire Prevention and Suppression Regulation, a regulation falling under the Forest Practices Code of BC Act and the Employment Standards Act, and the WCB Occupational and Safety Regulation, Part 26 Forestry Operations,

Forest Practices Code of British Columbia Act – Forest Fire Prevention and Suppression Regulation specifies under Div. 3 part 35 (2) that the person carrying out an industrial activity within a forested area must take appropriate action, when a fire is first discovered, to limit the spread of the fire and possibly extinguish it by committing all employees who are working in the area of operation, including all tools and equipment required to be on site for this purpose plus any other tools and equipment which may be available.

The WCB Occupational and Safety Regulation, Part 26 Forestry Operations, goes on to state in 26.19 that before fighting a forest fire, workers must be trained in their fire fighting duties in accordance with a standard acceptable to the board. In addition, it states that workers must be retrained annually and that the employer must keep training records for each worker required to fight fires.

Thus, since all those working in forestry field operations may end up being called upon to handle initial attacks on a fire, due diligence dictates that they must all be trained in anticipation of such an emergency situation.

The training acceptable to WCB is the S-100 (BC) Basic Fire Suppression and Safety course developed by the Forest Service. The course is an overview of the important parts of three more detailed Fire Suppression training courses: S-130, S-190, and S-232.

The S-100 course provides the student with information about fire behaviour, methods of fire suppression, basic tools and equipment used to fight fire, water delivery systems, safe operating procedures on the fireline, as well as WHMIS training specific to chemicals which may be used in fire fighting operations. In order for the course, as well as the certificates provided at the successful completion of the course, to be recognized by the Forest Service and WCB, it must be presented by a qualified instructor who is on a Forest Protection Program list of recognized instructors.

The course is about 10 hours long and was written for delivery over a two day period. It includes a field component to train individuals in the proper use of fire fighting equipment. However, because an instructor is allowed to adjust the delivery time in recognition of participants who have a high industry experience level, the most common format of delivering the S-100 course to those working in the Forest Industry is an extended one day version. In addition to this adjustment, the course material is region specific so that it addresses the unique situations found in each of the province’s biogeoclimatic zones.

To meet the requirement of the annual refresher as required by WCB regulations, companies have two options. They may hire an instructor to teach a 4 hour refresher version of the S-100 course, or they may have one of their staff, who has the appropriate knowledge and skills, present a “tailgate” session with the working crew during which they review a checklist of key items as a reminder of the knowledge and skills required. That information must then be recorded in the company records.

FISA can assist qualifying companies requiring Fire Suppression and Safety training by arranging for funding assistance for courses as well as including successful students on FISA’s provincial student data base which can serve as the record of training required by WCB. In addition, for those companies wishing to do their own refresher training using the “tailgate” training approach, FISA has checklist and testing material available which can be used to meet the intent of the WCB regulation. If that material is returned to FISA, the names of those having gone through the refresher session will be added to the FISA database.

When reviewing your company’s forest operations for the annual fire season between April 1 and October 31, make sure that your employees are well prepared with the knowledge and skills required to fight a forest fire in an emergency situation, especially the knowledge required to determine when their lives are at risk. To not do so may be the cause of the next serious incident resulting from a forest fire.

Joachim Graber, Manager of Training & Development, FISA – Forest Industry Safety Association, 1488 Fourth Avenue, Suite 602, Prince George, B.C. V2L 4Y2, Phone: 250-562-3215, Fax: 250-562-9237