A tractor-plow unit cuts a six-foot wide furrow of earth to stop an advancing fire line.
When conflagration sparks innovation
Firefighters, engineers and operators combine their talents and experience to modify equipment and extinguish wildfires safely.
On a warm day in 1982, DNR Forest Fire Control Assistant Steve Michalko was called to a fire in Marinette County. A recreational vehicle had been stolen, stripped and set on fire near a pine plantation, and Michalko responded with a "Heavy Unit" – a fire engine with a dozer in tow. He was following standard procedure, plowing a firebreak with the dozer, when the situation suddenly turned from routine to extremely dangerous.
"The fire made a run uphill and it was coming pretty fast," Michalko said. "I pulled up the plow and tried to back up, but I couldn’t outrun the fire." Fortunately for Michalko, his dozer was equipped with a new emergency shower system that had been custom designed for his rig. The fire overtook the dozer and flames came through the roll-cage, but the shower system protected him and he emerged unharmed.
"I had no burns at all," Michalko said. "I did have some water damage, though: I chewed tobacco at the time and it got soaked. Someone had to replenish my supply before I could go on."
Wildfires threaten lives and property every year in Wisconsin, and fighting them is hot and dangerous work. In the early days of the last century, firefighters worked on foot and on horseback, but today’s wildland firefighters use some of the safest, most innovative gear found anywhere. Much of that gear – like the on-board shower system that protected Michalko – is designed specifically for Wisconsin's unique conditions and is fabricated at the Department of Natural Resources' LeMay Forestry Center in Tomahawk.
Since its founding in 1934, the LeMay Center's name has changed but its essential functions have remained the same: to provide a workspace for the design, production, repair and modification of firefighting equipment and to serve as a centralized warehouse for firefighting tools and gear.
The warehouse serves not only the DNR but also volunteer fire departments around the state, said Wildland Fire Equipment Research and Development Section Chief Mike Lehman. "The State of Wisconsin provides grant money to fire departments," Lehman said. "The departments can use those funds to buy wildland fire supplies from the LeMay Center’s warehouse at cost." Those grant monies ensure that fire departments have access to wildland firefighting protective gear and suppression equipment for those times when they are the first to a wildland fire, or when other wildland fires prevent DNR from responding.
The DNR has mutual aid agreements with hundreds of fire departments around the state. While the fire departments focus on structural fires (houses, sheds and commercial buildings) and the DNR’s emphasis is on wildland fires, there are powerful advantages to working together. Wildland fuels can ignite structural fires, and structural fires can ignite wildland fuels, so coordinated efforts mean the most effective fire suppression possible. DNR rangers maintain close relationships with fire departments in their geographic area of responsibility, conduct training exercises and share the technology to build communication networks so mutual responses are as well coordinated as possible. This cooperative approach, including the benefits offered by the state's fire suppression grant programs, is critical to ensuring that all firefighters can work together effectively.
Wisconsin's coordinated commitment to fire suppression, along with its relatively flat topography, means that fires are usually extinguished while they’re still relatively small. We're unlikely to experience wildfires on the vast scale that's often seen out West, but our state does face increasing pressure regarding fire suppression efforts.
One of the biggest challenges is the increasing amount of residential development in remote areas and near swamps and marshes.
"A while back there weren’t many houses or structures around marshy land," said Phil Puestow, a forestry technician based in Rhinelander. "If there was a small fire in a remote marsh, we’d just keep an eye on it and catch it if it came up onto the highland." Today, though, more and more houses are being built near marshy land that was once considered marginal. More homes are being built in remote forested areas, too, and these factors have led to more so-called "wildland-urban interface" fires – fires in which structures are threatened and lives are at stake. "Just about every fire we see now, there’s some sort of structure that we need to protect," Puestow said.
With more homes and other buildings to protect, wildland firefighters have a greater need for vehicles that can operate on wet, marshy soils. They need vehicles that can access remote or roadless areas. Most of all, they need rigs that are equipped with gear to keep them safe.
Overall, the state crews have an excellent safety record. In nearly 100 years of wildland firefighting, only one fatality has occurred: Donald L. Eisberner died fighting a fire in the Eau Claire County Forest in 1982. That tragedy led to new knowledge and further improvements in safety technology. Michalko surmised, for instance, that he was the first person to use the new shower system that was implemented after Eisberner's death. Twenty years later, staff developed roll-down fire curtains and installed them on dozers and marsh rigs to offer even more protection for operators.
The tragedy also led to an increased awareness of the importance of consistent control placement and labeling on all vehicles. Labels, knobs and switches are consistent so in an emergency a trained operator can get his or her hands on the right control quickly and efficiently.
Lehman, who is a mechanical engineer, said procedures are in place to balance the desire for innovation with the need for consistency. "We encourage people to be innovative," he said, "but consistency is really important. We don’t allow freelancing." If a staffer out in the field has an idea for an improvement, they’re encouraged to share the idea with LeMay Center staff. Ideas also spring from the DNR Forestry’s Equipment and Safety Team, which comprises technicians, rangers and specialists who bring recommendations from their field experiences. The team helps refine ideas and develop equipment specifications.
Once an idea has been approved and refined, there are several paths that the concept can take. If field staff has a good idea and is technologically proficient, he or she can contact Lehman for permission to create a prototype of the desired modification. If the person can't fabricate the modification, Lehman might mention the concept to someone on the shop floor at the LeMay Center and they can start working on it. Or the idea may be referred to a LeMay Center designer who can create a three-dimensional CAD (computer-assisted design) model of the project.
After an item is designed and a prototype made, the modification is tested and refined. If there's general consensus that the concept is good and the design sound, the innovation is implemented across the fleet and all staff are trained in its use.
"Training and design are closely linked," Lehman said. "We try to keep everything logical and consistent. For instance, on a tractor-plow, pushing the lever forward and down gives you water. Always."
The end result is that Wisconsin’s wildland firefighters use highly specialized equipment – much of it designed and manufactured by LeMay Center employees – that allows them to do their job more safely and more efficiently than ever before.
Writer and photographer Lori Compas is also a website designer and editor for DNR's Division of Forestry.