This summer, 16 wildfires ravaged the State of Washington, consuming over a half million acres and drawing firefighters both professional and volunteer to battle the blazes. In addition, the Washington National Guard and active duty soldiers joined around 3000 citizens to help contain the fires, marking the first time since 2006 the nation’s military was called to engage in firefighting.

A Nation Under Fire

The wildfires sprang up quickly, and nobody had time to prepare. In late August, a Federal Emergency was declared for Washington, and 10 Blackhawk helicopters arrived to pour more than 276,000 gallons of water on the flames.

In addition, the military also supplied four C-130 Hercules cargo aircraft, which were converted into air tankers capable of dropping 2,700 gallons of fire retardant.

Ground crews fought hard through Preparedness Level 5, and three firefighters were killed after a car accident left them to be consumed by the wildfires. Meanwhile, a total of 7.2 million acres burned across the country, with two-thirds of the burnt acreage in Alaska.

Fighting Fire with Fire

Battling the wildfires is a multi-step process. Different fires are fought different ways, but the general idea is to deprive the fire of fuel.

First, firefighters clear a ring around the fire area of any flammable materials. Then a control burn is set from a natural boundary (a river, road, etc.) to the fire. This helps contain the spread of the fire, though winds and other environmental factors can sometimes get in the way.

Then aircraft come in, spraying water, jelly-o, and foam flame retardants on the fire. The chemicals used in these fire retardants can vary, but they’re typically made of phosphate, sodium bicarbonate, and/or aluminum sulfate. This is similar to the chemicals used in hand-held foam fire extinguishers.

Hi-tech satellites, computers, and other digital equipment are used to monitor fires, forecast wind, and map the terrain. This helps firefighters plan a defense against the blaze.

Trained firefighters geared out in flame-resistant clothing and gear, oxygen masks, and firefighting tools, including fire shelters for worst-case scenarios.

Despite all these precautions, battling forest fires is still a dangerous job. Crews often work 12- to 18-hour days in dangerous conditions, and injuries (sometimes fatal) can occur. A properly trained and equipped team of firefighters is our best defense against forest fires. Keeping these heroic firefighters safe is one of our top priorities.