Twenty years ago, when Oakland Fire Department Captain Ian McWhorter was out on the burning hills, joining hundreds of other firefighters battling a blaze that took 25 lives and destroyed over 3,500 homes, he was dressed for battle with a structural, not a wildland fire.
“In 1991 we were using a lot of our interior structure equipment up there, and a lot of the companies that came over to support us, that’s what they were bringing,” McWhorter said. But it soon became clear that the heavy uniforms firefighters wear to fight structural fires were wrong for this particular fire, which moved swiftly over the hills, consuming everything in its path. McWhorter recalls that the fire was moving so quickly and so erratically that they had to write off entire blocks, let alone single houses. “We weren’t going to really tie ourselves to one structure,” he said.
Spend five minutes in one of those uniforms and you’ll understand the tradeoff between protection and weight . First, onto your feet go the boots: steel toe, steel heel, steel shank. It’s like walking around in a pair of concrete blocks. Pull up the pants, three layers of fire-resistant and waterproof materials, and snap the suspenders onto your shoulders. Now add the stiff-collared turnout coat, a helmet with an extra long brim in the back to keep embers and melting-hot liquids off your neck, and a battered tank of compressed air. All of a sudden you’re carrying around an extra 75 pounds on your back and your shoulders and your legs. And you’re sweating. Profusely. And you haven’t even swung an axe or held a hose yet. And there’s not even a fire in sight.
Now imagine wearing that while running into a burning building where temperatures might easily reach 1,000 degrees, or while wrestling with a hose that’s spewing out 1,500 gallons of water a minute. The turnout suits are a necessity for fighting structural fires; the heavy cover they provide can come at a cost. Overheating and fatigue are two of the biggest concerns for firefighters on the job, other than all the other more obvious occupational hazards.
But suppressing wildland fires — which is really what the Oakland Hills fire turned out to be — requires that firefighters be mobile, quick, and out in the field for long periods of time. Fighting them in the heavy gear used for structural fires is tough on the body, and unsustainable. That’s why there is special gear for dealing with wildland fires.
Today, each and every OFD firefighter has a set of wildland fire gear, and each engine comes equipped with special tools — as shown in the slideshow above — for fighting wildland fires. All OFD firefighters must also go through training and complete a yearly certification in wildland fire management. These changes were all implemented in an effort to increase education about wildland fires within the department, and minimize the damage if another fire like the one of 1991 were to ever happen in Oakland again.
“We operate a little differently now than we did then, we’ll get more resources, planes, helicopters, in a lot faster,” McWhorter said. “Now, with our strategies, we start by doing a bigger picture.”