Wildland and urban firefighting have something in common, both are extremely dangerous, however, they are extremely different. The first difference is the approach, which is offensive for urban firefighting.
“We are going to engage that fire, we have hose lines, we have protective equipment and we are going to be able to breath in a super-heated environment, so we are taking on that fire one-on-one," said Phoenix FD Cpt. Rob McDade. "Think of it as hand-to-hand combat: We are going to be aggressive, kick doors in. We are fighting the fire at the root of the source."
For a wildland fire, crews are playing defense.
“On a wildland fire, you have to be defensive because you are so vulnerable -- you have nowhere to hide. Slow it down, look at what we are doing, reevaluate, move your troops back,” said McDade.
When it comes to an escape plan, a building fire allows more options.
“If anything goes wrong, a roof collapse, a flash over, something we didn’t predict would happen, we jump out a window or we run out a door. We can extricate ourselves from that fire fight,” said McDade.
For a wildland fire, your escape options are limited.
“You are there, there’s nowhere else to go. When tragedies happen, you hear wildland firefighters say 'We thought we knew the fire behavior, we thought we were at a safe distance but then the wind shifted, the valley changed the fuel it had and it took off on us.' They are running for their lives,” said McDade.
Another major difference is the gear.
“A wildland helmet will provide you some protection from falling tree limbs. It’s lightweight but it does have a threshold where it will no longer be able to protect you. A Phoenix fire helmet weighs about 10 times as much and provides more protection, but you wouldn’t want to be walking around in a forest for hours with this helmet,” said McDade.
“Then we have the jackets, urban firefighting jacket weighs about 20 pounds whereas the wildland jacket is about the same weight as a T-shirt or light jacket. An urban firefighting jacket allows you to be in inhospitable environments, whereas a wildland jacket is made for working all day, 12-hour shifts, working in the forest."
Another big difference is breathing.
“As a wildland firefighter, you are not wearing a mask. You are not on air, so you know you can’t go directly into the fire,” said McDade.
It all circles back to what they have in common, though: both are extremely dangerous to fight. Hats off and the utmost respect to the men and women risking their lives fighting both urban and wildland fires.