Common Tactical Errors on the Fireground

By Doug Campbell

Fire behavior prediction is the first line of defense.

When things go wrong and firefighters are burned by the fire they are engaged in fighting, it is usually because they have failed to predict a fire behavior change. Fire behavior changes because the forces of wind, slope or preheating of the fuel change in their aggregate alignment or strength.

When these forces of change come into alignment the fire potential is great. When they go out of alignment the fire potential is reduced. The observations made on the fire should reveal the fire signature. This signature (degree of variation) is important information to use in making predictions. Observations of the fire and the fire ground can be used to make fire behavior predictions of it getting worse or easier. In the following examples the common errors will be described in CPS phrases.

Loop Fire 1966

Thirteen El Cariso Hotshots were killed and others injured when a cold trail fireline was being constructed downhill at 1555 on a SW aspect. The fire relocated from the bottom of a draw to the slope below the crew and the smoldering fire transitioned to an area on fire creating flame lengths reaching 100 feet. The fire ran over a ridge a few yards beyond the accident site, went out of alignment and quit.

Romero Fire 1971

Four firefighters were killed when fire overran their position as they tried to gain a safety area.

Battlement Creek 1976

Three were killed and another severely burned during a burnout operation. The accident happened on a ridge top. Their burnout was aligned against the forces of slope, wind and preheat and was not burning well. Another burnout team lit fire below, placing their fire in full alignment with wind, slope and solar preheating of the fuel that promoted maximum fire spread. The burnout from the bottom of the slope hit the ridge with such intensity that flames swept over the crew's position forcing them into shelters.

Spanish Ranch 1979

Four firefighters died as a result of a fire that overran them while they were using an escape route.

The Butte Fire 1985

Seventy-two firefighters deployed shelters when the Butte fire ran up a west aspect with a following wind at 1600 hours. The crews were told to burn out from the ridge top in tall timber if the fire made a run toward them. The tree crowns were the major source of fuel that created 200-foot flames. The planners and crew supervisors apparently did not know they could not burn out the crowns from the shaded side of the tree, into the wind and downslope. They tried the burnout tactic but the fire did not burn any crowns it just cooked them making the fire behavior next to the fireline worse. A video was made showing how well the fire shelters worked.

Yellowstone fires 1988

Failure to use "fuels fire" tactics because of environmental concerns and policies of the National Park made control of these fires impossible. The fires burned until snow quenched them. These fires were fuels fires that would require a massive indirect and burnout tactic, a tactic which was unacceptable to the administration. The monies spent on failed tactical solutions were in the billions. Much of the control efforts were predictably wasted. This was a failure to understand wildland fire behavior and our understanding the thresholds of control. Fight fire when you can prevail.

Glen Alen 1993

Two firefighters killed and two more badly burned while they were in a position above the fire with a slope in full alignment between them and the fire. The fire flared up below the crew and flashed over them before they could reach a safe position. The time was 1615 hours and located on a SW aspect with a SW wind.

Buchannan Rx burn 1993

One firefighter was killed and 15 more endangered when firing was done below their position while they were on a contour road near a ridgetop. The aerial firing of a SW aspect at it's peak heating period got the Pinion/Juniper fuel to carry fire. The amount and arrangement of fire in the hot and dry fuel bed caused extreme fire behavior. A vertical cliff on a West aspect was at maximum heat and created some up drafts that were deemed un-predictable and causative in the accident report.

South Canyon Fire 1994

Fourteen firefighters perished in a burnover in the afternoon on a SW aspect.

Green Meadow 1994

A burnover of an engine crew was captured on videotape. At about 1300 hours the intensity went to area on fire and almost killed the crew.

Grand Fire 1996

The Grand fire was one where good tactics were used and bad tactics avoided by using CPS language. Fire went out of alignment at the top of the ridge, no line needed. I.R. was used to verify that the edge of fire was cold. Hotshots wanted to put the crew on a steep hot slope and perform cold trail work. The OPS said no and gave his reasons. If the fire burned out that area, it would go over the ridge and most likely go out on the backside, like the fire had done the day before. The crew would be in a bad position if the fire rekindled, a similar situation to the Loop fire of 1966. CPS language was used to prevent crews being put into dangerous positions. Fight fire when it is out of alignment.

Calabasas Fire 1996

This was an interface fire in the Malibu area of Southern California. Ten firefighters were burned over injuring all ten, one of them critically.


When wind, slope and solar preheat forces go into alignment, the fire makes runs. If firefighters learn to see this condition setting up they can avoid being in the path of the fire. When they fail to recognize the potential their evacuation is implemented too late to avoid becoming over-run by fire. Firefighters need to learn to act on the potential rather than waiting for the fire to make the first move. The timing and the position of the fire and firefighters are critical elements and must be well managed as part of the tactical approach. When firefighters are positioned in front of a fire that is coming into alignment they are making a common mistake as did the victims of the Green Meadow, the Loop, the Mann Gulch, the Glen Alen, the Butte, the Spanish Ranch, The Buchannan and South Canyon fire burnovers.
Reprinted here with permission of

[Wildland Fire Specialists]

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Last updated 4 November 2014