In the checklist of things you do to prepare for conducting prescribed fire on your hunting land, I had never included anything related to first aid, physical fitness or personal health and safety – until I heard Dr. Tony Neri speak at a Georgia Prescribed Fire Council meeting last year.
When we think about safety related to prescribed fire, we are often thinking about fire safety and controlling the location and intensity of the burn. But have you ever prioritized your own health and safety when planning prescribed fire?
Dr. Neri is a physician and former professional wildland firefighter who coordinates the CDC’s wildland fire program for the U.S. Forest Service and is a volunteer firefighter and physician with Georgia DNR. He made me think about all the dangers we face when we conduct prescribed fire. He gave me several easy things to do to prepare for, and respond to, medical emergencies on burn day.
What Kind of Health Emergencies Could Strike?
As a wildland firefighter himself, Dr. Neri said he has witnessed and studied medical emergencies related to wild and prescribed fire. Injuries and emergencies can come in several forms on burning day. Obviously, you or your team members can be burned, but fire is not really the main concern.
Someone might roll an ATV. Heatstroke can strike, even in winter. Dr. Neri has seen cases where the stress and excitement of managing a prescribed fire led to heart attack. Someone might step in a stump hole and sprain a leg or break bones. Smoke inhalation might cause issues. Then there is the wildlife. Snakebite is a possibility in the warm season, and insect bites can produce allergic reactions in some people.
In fact, a University of Iowa study of 1,301 non-fatal wildland firefighter injuries from 2003 to 2007 found, “The most common injury mechanism was slips/trips/falls followed by equipment/tools/machinery.”
When I’m preparing for a prescribed fire, I gather a lot of tools and machinery, including chainsaws, axes, hoes, shovels, an ATV, a tractor and disk harrows. With this much equipment being operated by several people managing a fire, you can see why burns are only one of the dangers on the fireline.
How Will Emergency Responders Reach You?
Some health emergencies can be anticipated and prevented, like heatstroke. But you need to prepare for unexpected health emergencies, so determine the location of the nearest emergency room, and especially the nearest hospital with a burn unit or trauma center. If someone on your team needs an emergency response, how will an ambulance reach them? Can an ambulance drive to the location of the fire, and if not, how will you extract an injured team member from the woods and get them to the nearest public road?
Don’t forget that in a medical emergency, you’ve still got a fire to manage. Your team can’t abandon the burning fire to deal with an injured person. “A medical incident with an active fire is a serious situation,” said Dr. Neri.
Planning ahead and thinking about how you will handle such a situation will help if the scenario becomes reality. Who on the team is qualified to continue managing the fire if you are injured or you must care for someone who is injured? Designate a backup burn boss who is qualified to take over and lead the work or extinguish the fire.
Safety Equipment for Prescribed Fire
Not everyone can afford or needs to buy fire-resistant Nomex clothing for conducting prescribed fire. That’s okay. Just ensure everyone assisting with the fire is wearing natural fibers like cotton or wool and avoiding synthetic material like nylon and polyester, which will melt on contact with sparks or flame. Long sleeves and pants are important. In addition, the entire team should wear:
- Leather boots
- Leather gloves
- Safety glasses or other eye protection
- Bandana to prevent smoke inhalation
- Chainsaw chaps and helmet for chainsaw operators
Also, invest in a good first-aid kit for your prescribed fire equipment. The basic household kit is not enough. Look for a larger kit with extra bandages, over-the-counter pain killers, and treatments for allergic reactions. Dr. Neri pointed out that the antihistamine effect of an epi-pen only lasts 10 to 15 minutes, so you’ll need multiples, or a longer-lasting treatment like Benadryl.
For minor burns, you’ll need water to cool the skin and clean cloth for drying and wrapping the site. Make sure your first-aid kit contains the cloth and bandages you might need for this.
Physical Fitness for Prescribed Fire
When conducted under the right conditions, with the right technique, prescribed fire is often a low-stress, slow-paced activity. But even then, there may be a lot of walking and physical exertion involved. Recently, I burned a unit of only 3½ acres, and I easily blew past my daily step goal of 10,000 steps in three hours. This was in January, and I still worked up a good sweat and kept my heart rate high. Walking in freshly plowed firebreaks is a workout.
Everyone who assists with the burn should be in good physical condition. If there’s anyone on your team who is out of shape or has a known health condition that prevents physical exertion, assign them light duty like driving the equipment truck, monitoring firebreaks on an ATV, and distributing plenty of drinking water to those who are on their feet.
Dr. Neri also pointed out that exercising in warm conditions is the best way to prepare yourself for prescribed fire work. You might be in top treadmill shape in an air conditioned gym, but exertion around the heat of a woodland fire is a different matter – especially if you are inhaling smoke as well. Training in hot conditions will help you prevent heatstroke.
Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke
Know the signs of oncoming heat exhaustion and heat stroke so you can recognize it in yourself and others. Signs of heat exhaustion include headache, dizziness, weakness, and nausea. In this early stage before heat stroke, a person will likely sweat profusely as well.
“If someone on your crew is experiencing signs of heat exhaustion, make them stop work and hydrate with cold drinks,” said Dr. Neri. “Get them in the shade or air conditioning to cool off, and then go check the rest of your crew. If one person is experiencing heat stress, others are likely.”
Heat exhaustion progresses to heat stroke, which is more serious. The sweating stops and your skin will be dry. You’re no longer thinking clearly and may be confused. The initial symptoms of headache and nausea likely continue, and you may even pass out. Your body temperature may reach 103 or higher. This is much more serious, and if someone on your team reaches this level, it’s time to enact your emergency response plan and dial 911.
Avoid serious heat exhaustion by catching the early signs or preventing them altogether. Dr. Neri outlined several steps that help prevent heat exhaustion or stroke.
Prioritize nutrition and hydration. Make sure everyone on the team eats a good meal to start the day and drinks plenty of water throughout the work period. An ample supply of cold water should be part of your burn preparation. For a full-day job, provide time for team members to take a lunch break as well. Remind your team often to drink water.
Start as early in the day as you can. Though humidity and other weather conditions may not allow for burning until mid-morning, start as soon as they do. Get as much burning done as you can early in the day before air temperatures rise, especially for growing-season burns.
Train in the heat. The best way to prepare for the physical exertion and high temperatures of a prescribed fire is to exercise regularly in hot weather or in a warm indoor location. As with any exercise routine, start light and work your up.
Travel light. Dress in appropriate clothes for a prescribed fire, but don’t overdress. Shed layers if you need to. If you’re carrying heavy equipment like a backpack water tank, take it off to rest regularly or trade equipment with another team member during the day.
I learned a lot from Dr. Neri’s presentation at my home state’s Prescribed Fire Council meeting, and you can learn a lot about prescribed fire too if you connect with your state’s Prescribed Fire Council. Click here to find and connect with your council. NDA is involved with and supports this network of non-profit groups.
With planning and preparation, you’ll spend a lot of time standing around watching your fire back its way into the wind. That’s a safe, effective fire. And if you also anticipate and plan for medical safety, the day will be a safe one for everyone who helps you.