Beating Wildfires

Published:  01 April, 2006

F&R’s Ann-Marie Knegt talks to Doug Campbell, a fire behaviour analyst with over 35 years’ experience as a wildland firefighter. He developed the Campbell Prediction System (CPS) which, over the last 10 years, has been credited with saving many lives.

During the 1990s, 56% of the fatalities on wildland fires were due to burnovers involving federal firefighters, says Doug Campbell, inventor of the Campbell Prediction System which recognises fire behaviour
“After 30 years in the US Forest Service I experienced many narrow escapes from situations which could have killed or injured me. Around 28 of my colleagues, folks I had worked beside, died in burnover incidents during this time. The management group always investigated those  accidents. Most of the time it was determined that those injured or killed did not obey the firefighters’ rules of engagement. These are known as the 10 Standard Orders and the 18  Situations that shout ‘Watch Out’,” he explains.
Doug began to ponder why do some die and others beat the fire? It occurred to him that some  people must understand better how a fire works  and which factors to take into account.
He questioned his mentors and they said they ‘just knew by intuition’; they could not really verbalise this, but they were seldom wrong.
Doug concluded that the problem could be defined as not knowing when and where the fire would change and become an actual threat.
“Many experienced firefighters were never surprised by things the fire did. The firefighters  who were burned had been surprised - and it cost  them their lives. The idea hit me like a BGO, a blinding glimpse of the obvious. If I could just find out how these ‘super’ firefighters knew fire, I could trust knowledge and logic instead of luck and intuition to save myself and those I super­vised from harm.”
Knowledge and intuition:
During all his 40 years in wildland fire, Doug was told to follow existing rules better to solve the safety problem. He now disagrees with these principles. “The Campbell Prediction System was developed from old knowledge and intuition, born from many years of experience so that it encodes a logical point of view and explains how to observe. The goal is to understand and explain how to observe the fire and determine what changes will take place during your engagement.” Doug explains that CPS is based on the Signature Prediction Method. The firefighter actually observes the fire in the field and should eliminate all the previous assumptions of mathematical fire models. Each distinct part of a wildfire emits a variation in intensity rate of spread.
These variations are called signatures. There are four types of wild fires that require different tactics: 1.Wind driven - the dominant force is wind. 2.Fuel fires - the dominant force is the amount of fuel 3.Fire on fire: the fire and the radiation output becomes dominant. 4.Topography fire: In a wind-driven fuels or fire on fire, the slopes and valleys have little effect on the variations of rate of spread. The differences in slope and aspect make no impact on the spread of the fire. It goes up the slope, down the slope and over all terrain features and does not react to these variances. The topography does not influence the spread variances of the fire.
Doug recognises three signatures in every fire: the head is in the alignment parts and the heel and the flank are out of the alignment parts of the fire. “Many times these signatures will replicate when the alignments are similar. “Important information for firefighters should identify where the variations in fire intensity will occur in the path of the fire. The decision to attack part of a wildland fire should depend on this knowledge because if you want to attack the fire it must be where and when you could prevail over it.” Making an attack, he says, where or when the fire is too intense is an error, which endangers the firefighter, who may not be able to contain the fire. This strategy wastes resources and is dangerous.
Rate of spread:
Doug says it’s important to determine where and when the spreading wildfire will decrease in intensity and the rate of spread to the point where  The Catalonian Forestry Service has been using CPS since 1997 The GRAF units of the Catalonian Forestry Service are specially trained for direct response to  wildfires.
“The signature prediction method can be used to make this determination and to explain the logic for an attack strategy. Observing the varia­tions of intensity and speed of a wildfire and knowing the cause of the variations allows these predictions to be made accurately. On a wind­driven fire, the firefighter may need to wait for the wind to abate before it becomes manageable.  “On a fuel-dominated fire one may need to cut massive fire breaks ahead of the fire and burn out the fuel in between or wait until the fire burns out of that particular fuel bed. When a fire is producing huge amounts of radiation which is the dominant force, one must wait until the fire abates.”  He explains that with a topography fire, where the major variations in the fire behaviour are caused by the alignments of wind, slope and solar preheating, the variations become the fire signa­tures of certain alignments of these forces. Knowing what the fire behaviour will be like and where and when these variations will occur ahead of the fire leads to better tactical decisions and more success in the engagement of the fire.  It is difficult for Doug to explain the system in just words.
“A visual representation can speak volumes. That is why I use maps with trigger points, tracks and first run perimeters to explain my predictions. The logic of this method is that if the fire burns over the fire behaviour threshold, it will probably do so again where it gets into a similar alignment.
“Imagine having firefighters fighting a wildfire and not knowing when and where the fire will overwhelm them? Wise firefighters fight fire when it is out of alignment to ensure they remain safe and win the fight. How else can you know where and when the fire will be tame enough to risk an attack?”
GIS & mapping:
Doug feels that CPS and modern technology go well together. He remembers the days of using handdrawn sketches of wildland fire locations and the use of quadrangle maps that show contour lines and elevations. GIS _ Geographical Information System- has improved mapping and planning with shaded terrain maps. Doug explains that since this innovation has been used, maps require less interpretation.  “The shaded terrain map represents a much more realistic view, it resembles an aerial photo­graph. CPS fits into the display by adding the forecasted wind direction and strength, using an arrow. Wind and slope are two primary forces that direct a wildland fire. The CPS display begins in highlighting south and west aspects, they host more severe fire behaviour because the solar radiation increases the flammability of the fuel. The CPS protocol adds trigger points of fire behaviour change by placing an X on the terrain at locations where wind, slope and preheating align­ments cause fire runs,” he explains.  From the trigger point the firefighter then adds a track as a centreline of the firespread to another point on the map where the fire will slow because it goes out of alignment. Then a first-run perimeter will be drawn to depict the perimeter of that fire run. From those additions, a series of thresholdlines can be drawn to show where the fire may be within the firefighter's threshold of control.
He explains that with this visual display, strategy and tactical plans can be discussed and decided on. According to Doug this procedure has been used on many large wildfires and the firefighters have found that the system worked very well for them.  Body Text:Which brigades have taken the CPS system on? Doug has been teaching CPS in many parts of the USA, Canada and Spain. For the Los Angeles Fire Department the training is standard. Another enthusiastic practitioner of CPS is Marc Castellnou, the head of the Catalonian Forestry Service. Marc has 5,800 firefighters working for him in seven regions and 225 stations. He has been practising CPS since 1997, when he picked up Doug_s book at the International Wildland Fire Association Conference.
“I bought his book at the IAWF. His system was so close to the rules I was designing for my own fire service that I decided to e-mail Doug. He invited me to visit him in his hometown in California. When I went there, Doug trained me in CPS and we exchanged opinions and views. It was a great learning experience and also it was a confirmation that I was taking my work in the right direction,” Mark explains.  The Catalonian Forestry Service started with a trial period, after which the GRAF units were formed, hotshots that respond to a wildfire straight away. When this proved to be very successful, the system was implemented for everyone in the service.
CPS actually has saved Mark and his team from some very hot situations. In 1998 they were facing a fire in a valley in Cardo, Catalonia.
“We were situated on a steep slope and were about to be closed in by the fire. Thanks to CPS I was able to see how the alignments of the fire were working and I could communicate a safe position to the team. After this event everybody asked for more CPS training. We are still improving the system and arecombining it with our own rules and experience.”  Last year Mark travelled over to Scotland where he trained the Scottish Forestry Service in CPS. He explains that the system was received with the same enthusiasm as in Spain. “People like the training because it brings them close to the fire line, they just want to be active.”  In the meantime Doug is continuing to travel the world spreading the word about CPS. If you are interested in buying his book or receiving training for your brigade, please email him at home:

  • Operation Florian

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