Monday, November 03, 2008

Wildland fire fighting safety: 10 orders and 18 watchout situations

One of the things that has jumped out at me in the reading that I have done to date on wildland fires is the emphasis on wildland firefighter safety. The safety of the wildland fire fighter is paramount. I quickly learned that there are guidelines in place to protect the safety of wildland firefighters.

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) is an operational group designed to coordinate programs of the participating wildfire management agencies publishes a document. They also publish a document, The Fireline Handbook, that I consider a manual of wildland firefighting. This handbook is but one of a long list of publications that one may download from the NWCG website. I downloaded a copy and do refer to it from time to time.

When I skimmed the Fireline Handbook (437 pages!), I quickly noticed the emphasis on firefighter safety. John Maclean talks about the evolution of the 10 standard fire orders in Fire and Ashes in referencing the task force referred to below. I suspect that it is no accident that the 10 orders were put in place after investigations into both the 1949 Mann Gulch and the 1953 Rattlesnake Fires. I am not sure whether the 18 watchout situations came to be as a result of the 1957 task force or if they came about at a later time. I include them here. (Revised on October 14, 2014 from
The original ten Standard Firefighting Orders were developed in 1957 by a task force commissioned by the USDA-Forest Service Chief Richard E. McArdle. The task force reviewed the records of 16 tragedy fires that occurred from 1937 to 1956. The Standard Firefighting Orders were based in part on the successful "General Orders" used by the United States Armed Forces. The Standard Firefighting Orders are organized in a deliberate and sequential way to be implemented systematically and applied to all fire situations.

Shortly after the Standard Firefighting Orders were incorporated into firefighter training, the 18 Situations That Shout Watch Out were developed. These 18 situations are more specific and cautionary than the Standard Fire Orders and described situations that expand the 10 points of the Fire Orders. If firefighters follow the Standard Firefighting Orders and are alerted to the 18 Watch Out Situations, much of the risk of firefighting can be reduced.

The 10 Standard Fire Orders
1. Keep informed on fire weather conditions and forecasts.
2. Know what your fire is doing at all times.
3. Base all actions on current and expected behavior of the fire.
4. Identify escape routes and safety zones and make them known.
5. Post lookouts when there is possible danger.
6. Be alert. Keep calm. Think clearly. Act decisively.
7. Maintain prompt communications with your forces, your supervisor, and adjoining forces.
8. Give clear instructions and insure they are understood.
9. Maintain control of your forces at all times.
10. Fight fire aggressively, having provided for safety first.

The 18 Watch Out Situations
1. Fire not scouted and sized up.
2. In country not seen in daylight.
3. Safety zones and escape routes not identified.
4. Unfamiliar with weather and local factors influencing fire behavior.
5. Uninformed on strategy, tactics, and hazards.
6. Instructions and assignments not clear.
7. No communication link with crewmembers/supervisors.
8. Constructing line without safe anchor point.
9. Building fireline downhill with fire below.
10. Attempting frontal assault on fire.
11. Unburned fuel between you and the fire.
12. Cannot see main fire, not in contact with anyone who can.
13. On a hillside where rolling material can ignite fuel below.
14. Weather is getting hotter and drier.
15. Wind increases and/or changes direction.
16. Getting frequent spot fires across line.
17. Terrain and fuels make escape to safety zones difficult.
18. Taking a nap near the fire line.

source:, accessed on October 14, 2014. Updated 10 and 18 above to reflect minor changes in wording made since November 2008.

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