Rick Swan spent 33 years fighting fires in urban and wildland settings throughout California. The devastating images of the Fort McMurray fire bring back vivid memories.
In 2003, Southern California experienced its worst wildfires ever: Twenty-four people were killed, including one firefighter, and 3,710 homes were burned down as flames swept through 750,000 acres of land.
Mr. Swan now works as director of wildland firefighting safety and response at the International Association of Fire Fighters in Washington, D.C. He offers a window into the challenges facing firefighters.
What kind of experiences have you had fighting wildfires?
Pretty much from the very small to the very large – and all those in between. I started off as a firefighter pulling hose and ended up as deputy chief in a county in central California on the coast. But along those lines, as far as fire experiences go, the Old fire and the Grand Prix fire, some of those large ones that happened in 2003.
I've also flown in airplanes in the command-and-control aircraft in very large fires in Northern California in the Redding area. I was in Montana for a few of those big fires some years.
What was going through your mind watching the scenes from Fort McMurray?
When you have that number of people to evacuate, roads are clogged, you have smoke – even fire going across the road – you hit that flight or fight kind of emotion, and you can hear it in the voices in some of the YouTube videos. I mean, the people are screaming. They're in sheer panic.
In the Grand Prix fire in Southern California [in 2003], we had 30 or 40 mile-an-hour winds pushing the fire down the mountain to a subdivision. We were evacuating people because the fire was so big and moving so fast.
I mean, honestly, to me, 88,000 people leaving Fort McMurray, and they don't have one injury or death – that's a miracle.
When confronted by such a challenging fire, what is it like for the firefighters on the ground?
From the individual perspective, you have to put yourself in whatever real estate you've worked yourself into. And that's your world. You're not thinking of the next block necessarily or what's over the next hill. You're kind of just in your spot. So in this case, if you've found a home you wanted to protect or out on the line, your focus is really on that house or that piece [of land] you've been assigned to.
Your focus in on the job you have to do. You have to protect yourself and crew. And you also have to look out for the citizens that are moving through. And hopefully all the citizens are out, and then you have that one huge issue off your plate, because our priority is public safety and then it's property protection.
How do you keep those firefighters safe?
That's the $64,000 question. One, you rely on their training and their abilities in the individuals crews. But No. 2, as the person who is responsible for a number of resources on a section of the fire, your eyes are not focused down on the tactical level; your eyes are focused on what is around you, because you are the eyes and ears for those people that are performing that tactical duty.
And you're looking out ahead of the fire, you're looking at what's behind it. You're looking out for the potential of other issues coming up as far as access and water supplies and safety areas and safe refuge areas that you can deploy into if you needed to.
What kind of conditions are these firefighters working in and how hard is it to keep up their energy and morale?
Adrenaline will run you for about 24 to 36 hours, and then for your safety you need to step back and take that break and take a rest.
As with anything, fatigue is one of the largest issues we have in our health and safety aspects. It's been proven over and over again that fatigued individuals are just like drunk individuals … and their judgment is impaired.
Now, you add on top of that [the fact] they're in this smoky environment with the carbon monoxide and the other gases that are out there, and it's also known that large concentrations of long-term exposure to carbon monoxide causes headaches and other mental issues as far as clarity.
I don't have much information on the firefighters that are there in Fort McMurray. But, from my experience, it can tear you up.
This interview has been condensed and edited.