In June 2003, a new exhibit was unveiled at the Forest Heritage Center honoring the thousands of wildland firefighters that put their lives on the line each year. Following the death of Oklahoma firefighter Jim Burnett, friends rallied to find a fitting tribute to honor his memory. An 8-foot “hero-sized” bronze sculpture honors Jim Burnett, the first forest firefighter from Oklahoma to lose his life in the line of duty and all people who risk their lives fighting wildland fires each year.
On August 11, 2000 Oklahoma Forest Service lost a friend and fellow co-worker, Jim Burnett. Jim was an 18-year fire management veteran who had fought blazes all over the nation, so when the call came for firefighters to go to Wyoming on August 2, 2000, Jim didn’t hesitate. He and a crew of five other Oklahoma firefighters went to the Meeteetse, Wyoming fire before being assigned to battle the Kate’s Basin fire on August 10th. Following is an account of the circumstances of August 11th:
The summer of 2000 was a long fire season throughout the country. Throughout much of the west, fires were burning with rapid rates of spread and extreme fire behavior. In Wyoming, the Kate’s Basin Fire was raging across 33,000 acres. A crew of men from Oklahoma and Arkansas were assigned to that fire. On August 11, 2000, engines from Oklahoma were tending to that specific fire southwest of Thermopolis, Wyoming.
Jim Burnett, foreman of an Oklahoma Engine, and Presley Byington were scouting along the grader lines when they realized they could not hold the line. Winds were picking up and they needed to retreat to safety. When the oncoming fire cut off their escape route Burnett started the pump on the engine, but it only ran for a few seconds. He was then separated from the truck as he tried to escape to a safe area on foot. The onrushing fire prevented Byington from getting out of the truck, but he was able to protect himself by deploying his fire shelter inside the truck and covering up with it.
Recognizing that Byington and Burnett might be in trouble, the Thermopolis Volunteer Fire Department responded with their hose deployed. After finding the engine on fire, they suppressed the fire and rescued Byington from the cab.
Before Burnett could reach safety, he was overrun by the fire and killed.
Each year, over 25,000 people risk their lives to help prevent fire from spreading. This statue memorializes all the fallen firefighters and those who give their lives to fight fires. People hear about forest fires through the media. However, only those who have participated or been near a severe forest fire know the trauma that is involved. Society hears about “resources being thin” but not many realize that those resources are actually people. For the amount of people involved in the firefighting process, an honorable statue dedicated to those people was most appropriate here in McCurtain County at the Oklahoma’s Forest Heritage Center.
And today, Wednesday, August 11th, 2010, ten years later, we remember Jim Burnett.
This memorial is dedicated to all who have joined in the venture of protecting the natural resources and people of Oklahoma against the threat of wildland fire.
Fighting wildfires is physically demanding work often performed in extreme environmental conditions for long hours at any time of the year, day or night. Wildland firefighters face many risks and hazards in the performance of their duties, such as smoke, falling trees, snakes, insects, extreme heat and cold, poisonous plants, steep and hazardous terrain, driving, and the fire itself. While fighting wildfires, risk management, and firefighter safety are critical. A high level of physical and mental fitness is a must in this profession.
Oklahoma’s eleven distinct ecoregions and dramatic weather patterns provide extreme challenges for the men and women who protect the state’s people and resources from the threat of wildland fire. Wildfire is an unplanned event, a fire that has escaped control. With the right combination of fuels, weather, and topography, that fire can rapidly spread to cover hundreds of thousands of acres of forests, grasslands or even swampland and threaten anything in its path. In this hostile and unpredictable environment, protecting life is the single most important task. Firefighters face the challenge of fatigue with up to two weeks of long (up to 16 hour) days in a physically and mentally demanding environment. Adding to the unpredictability of wildland fire is the risk of spread through firebrands (embers). These sparks can cross rivers, roads, and firebreaks to ignite a new fire. Firebrands are a risk for homes and structures. Wildland fire is ever changing with an unlimited supply of fuel.
Keywords: Fire environment, constantly aware of surroundings, natural forces
Wildland fires are different from structural fires in several ways. In wildland fires the primary focus is protecting natural resources. Forests and grasslands provide a nearly unlimited supply of fuel for the fire to keep growing, and grassland fires can spread much faster and burn hotter than forest fires. Wildland fires must be suppressed either by man or by rain or they will continue to grow. There is a difference in equipment for fighting wildland fires: the stereotypical red fire truck would not work in the rugged terrain, so dozers, heavy equipment and hand tools are necessary.
One of the things that sets wildland fire apart is the potentially unlimited fuel supply. Even underground roots can burn, slowly smoldering and sometimes reigniting the fire days or weeks later.
Working in extreme conditions for long hours simple factors like hydration, comfortable boots, and good communication can be the difference between life and death. Firefighters spend much of their time preparing themselves and their equipment to go into the front lines of the firefighting battle. Firefighters take advantage of times of low fire risk by reviewing safety protocols, maintaining heavy equipment and hand tools, and making sure they’re ready to go when the call is received. By “exercising” equipment on a regular basis they can ensure that it’s in good working order when their lives are on the line. Working in extreme conditions for long hours simple factors like hydration, comfortable boots, and good communication can be the difference between life and death. Firefighters spend much of their time preparing themselves and their equipment to go into the front lines of the firefighting battle. Firefighters take advantage of times of low fire risk by reviewing safety protocols, maintaining heavy equipment and hand tools, and making sure they’re ready to go when the call is received. By “exercising” equipment on a regular basis they can ensure that it’s in good working order when their lives are on the line.
In Oklahoma, no firefighter goes into the field alone. The typical firefighter team in Oklahoma is made up of two firefighters, the Ranger, and the Crew Chief. Wildland firefighters are bound by an unwritten code of duty, respect, and integrity. The trust between crew members is important – their lives are literally in one another’s hands. The two-man crew is “tight”, and all crew members have to be able to depend on other firefighters they might get assigned with.
The firefighters of Oklahoma Forestry Services are responsible for protecting the entire state from wildland fires. When they are called to a fire, they rely on an established structure of command to organize and work with other agencies seamlessly. The assistance of local and volunteer fire departments is essential in locating homes, accounting for residents, and providing a bridge to the local community. OFS provides training for municipal and volunteer departments in the specific techniques of wildland firefighting to prepare them to assess fire situations and suppress the fire or work alongside OFS firefighters. In extreme cases crews from federal or other state agencies come in to lend a helping hand. Firefighting agencies across the nation hold to strict standards so they’re ready to come together at any time to seamlessly work together toward a common goal.
Keywords: Coordination and cooperation, interoperability, response follows preparedness
Conditions for fire are being monitored in Oklahoma every day. When the conditions of fuels, weather and topography are right there is a high risk of fire and OFS issues warnings. Public education is important: people need to understand that the things they do can cause an ignition source and a fire outbreak. During times of low risk, firefighters spend a lot of time maintaining equipment. They must keep the equipment “exercised” and in good working order so it works when their lives depend on it.
Keywords: Fuels, weather, and topography
During times of high fire risk, OFS has pre-positioned resources (people and equipment) to cut the response time. Helicopters are on standby on high fire risk days.
When a fire is spotted a team (ranger and crew chief) is deployed to assess (size up) the situation. If they can suppress the fire immediately, they do so. The modern methods for risk assessment and detection are so effective that 90% of fires are suppressed with the initial attack. When the fire is too large for two people to handle an extended attack is necessary. Complexity analysis is determining the type of team needed based on how many people are threatened, fuels, weather, topography. This is when the pre-positioned people and equipment come into play as well as the established structure of command. There can be a rapid increase and decrease of resources with incident command because of this. OFS always takes the lead in Oklahoma, working with other departments who know their role. When several local fire departments are called in, one is tasked with being the lead for local departments. The lead person from that department communicates directly with the OFS lead. There is only one incident commander and he/she is with OFS. There is a constant “size up” of conditions and there is constant change, so communication is key.
In the event that incident command must be set up, all the needs of personnel must be met. Food, lodging, etc. This takes personnel to organize (Tama Lester would be a good resource for this 580-584-3351). Sometimes there is a “tent city”. Personnel can work up to 16-hour days for up to 2 weeks and then they must take 2 days off.
“Tower observes smoke, rangers dispatched, people go, size it up. Dispatcher sends resources, put the fire out in initial attack or send more resources to meet the potential threat based on the fire environment.”
“Response follows preparedness, so we already know ahead of time who does what – everyone knows their role in advance.”
Keywords: Communication, interoperability, Response follows preparedness, incident command
Pay attention to risks, take precautions (no burning, watch for dragging chains, prepare homes using Firewise principles). Plan for animal care/removal (Firefighters like it when gates are unlocked so they can push animals to safety if needed). “Help those who are helping to save a property” by unlocking gates, leaving a hose hooked up to a water source so firefighters can top off their tanks. Human life is priority so accounting for residents is important.