What’s it like to battle a wildfire? Like putting out a fire and hiking at the same time

Rhode Island DEM aims to increase number of trained firefighters and volunteers to battle increasingly severe wildfires.

By: - June 26, 2023 5:00 am

Participants learn about the tools, tactics, and strategies for suppressing uncontrolled wildland fires during an intensive training course organized by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management at the George Washington Management Area in Chepachet on June 7. (Jocelyn Jackson for Rhode Island Current)

Dumping some water over a campfire might not be enough to fully extinguish it.

“It doesn’t take much for embers to reignite,” said Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management spokesman Mike Healey.

The right combination of heat, fuel and oxygen can lead to the start of a wildfire. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, 87% of wildfires in 2022 were caused by humans activity.  

The spring wildfires in Exeter and West Greenwich showed how much damage can result from extreme wildfires and how much effort it takes to stop them. The April 14 Exeter fire burned an estimated 300 to 400 acres of land. An investigation found evidence that it may have started at an illegal campsite in the Queen’s River Preserve. About 200 firefighters and the Rhode Island National Guard took over six hours to contain the majority of the fire in the region near the preserve. The blaze was three times larger than the West Greenwich fire that scorched 200 acres of land earlier that same week. 

State to begin reforestation efforts after Exeter brush fire

That’s why 27 individuals from municipal fire stations, the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) and volunteers suited up in heavy-duty gear at the George Washington Management Area in Chepachet during the first week of June. Wearing yellow shirts, green pants and hard helmets, they were participating in an intensive wildland firefighting class under a sky thick with haze from smoke from Canadian wildfires burning hundreds of miles away. 

Howard Cook, a pesticides supervisor from the DEM Division of Agriculture and Forestry has worked for the RIDEM for 24 years and started working for its agriculture division in 2012. He was enthusiastic about learning more about the process behind prescribed fires.

“I realized how much work it is,” Cook said. “It’s like a combination of fire work and hiking at the same time.”

 About 53.6% of Rhode Island fire departments are registered to respond to fighting wildfires, but the DEM wants to increase that number. Training classes like this one, and others to come, aim to increase the number of firefighters capable of confronting wildfires, said Ben Arnold, DEM principal forest ranger and training officer. The curriculum was developed by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.

“We hope to put this class on in the future and other national wildfire coordinating group classes,” Arnold said. 

An increase in what Arnold called “fuel loading” increases the risk of fires in Rhode Island. “Fuel loading is the amount of available fuel on the forest floor, that’s the dead material that drops to the forest floor and adds to the intensity of forest fires,” Arnold said. 

 A severe drought last year made for a considerably busy wildfire season for the state with more than 80 wildfires, Healey said.

“We haven’t seen a spike in the number of wildfires in Rhode Island, but we are seeing more severe ones,” Healey added. “Fires can become big problem fires quickly. We saw that in West Greenwich and Exeter.”

Participants learn how to properly use a flare by holding it close to the ground and taking the direction of the wind into consideration. (Jocelyn Jackson/Rhode Island Current)

Prescribed burns, fireline construction and other methods

Training participants gained more understanding of the efforts needed to prevent and suppress wildfires. They learned more about executing “prescribed fires” to prevent severe forest fires from occurring. Firefighters burn environments that grow invasive species, allowing native plants will regenerate. Thinning out the vegetation decreases the possibility of vegetation igniting. 

Fireline construction is another significant method to control a wildfire. Building firelines involves removing forest floor material that act as fuel; firefighters will dig and scrape the surface of the ground to prevent the fire from advancing.
Participants were also trained on water use which is crucial when fighting forest fires as it may not be easily accessible. They saw demonstrations about how they can use a body of water with the help of a water delivery system to hose the fire. During the training individuals pumped water from a nearby pond which feeds into the hose.

Although every aspect of this training is labor intensive, one of the more exhausting processes of fire suppression is mop-up. Firefighters will seek out burning material to extinguish any possibility of the fire reigniting.

“It’s physically draining work where you’re walking with your hand tools and feeling the ground to figure out where there are embers still burning,” Healey said.

Wildfires are not confined to specific regions or circumstances. The opportunity for municipal firefighters to train for these situations gives them the necessary skills and knowledge to effectively combat and mitigate the devastating impact of wildfires in our state, Healey said.

 “What’s happening in Canada is happening everywhere right now,” Healey said. “With climate change, precipitation varies from year to year, there’s droughts some years, there’s volatile storms other times. In terms of our forests, it makes for a drier, longer fire season.”

A class participant uses a hose to spray water pumped from a nearby pond, which would be necessary in areas where there are no fire hydrants. (Jocelyn Jackson/Rhode Island Current)


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Jocelyn Jackson
Jocelyn Jackson

A senior journalism major at Roger Williams University, Jocelyn Jackson was the editor-in-chief of the Hawks’ Herald student newspaper. She previously served as the paper’s opinions editor for the school newspaper. She is scheduled to receive her B.A. in journalism in December.