A BLM fire engine near Elko, Nevada. (BLM)
A BLM fire engine near Elko, Nevada. (BLM)

Life on a BLM Engine

By Kari Boyd-Peak

We had a sense it would be a busy fire season when an early summer report of smoke in June 2006 grew to a large, complex, and severe incident in just a few, short, exhausting days.  The Suzie Fire was the worst of several fire starts ignited on a single day by a dry lightning storm that moved through the BLM’s Elko District in Nevada.

I responded with my BLM Type 4 heavy engine and crew, and before we were even on the scene, I could tell we would have our hands full and ordered more resources.  Our engine and crew, working with others, were successful in suppressing some sections of line, but the fire was growing too fast and in too many directions.  It seemed as if there were no flanks—a head fire in all directions.  We needed all the help we could get and ordered everything available. 

Within 24 hours, and with strong erratic winds pushing in all directions, Suzie had engulfed three other fire starts and was threatening two towns in opposite directions, Elko to the east and Carlin to the west.  My crew and I spent the following 3 days bouncing from task to task:  providing structure protection at the University of Nevada Fire Science Academy, helping ranchers herd cattle to safety, directing helicopters to stock tanks for bucket fills, and running with drip torches to burn out from two-track roads to create a fire line.  Suzie rolled through continuous sage and cheatgrass in spite of the best efforts by firefighters and an incident management team.  The fire was not brought under control until many days later, after it had charred more than 70,000 acres.

The BLM relies heavily on wildland fire engines for initial and extended attack.  They can mobilize quickly, navigate through rugged terrain, and have the capacity to carry enough water to suppress most fires in the early stages.  Fires that burn in relatively light fuels can be knocked down with what’s called “pump and roll” action, a technique that has the driver of the engine following the flank of the fire and a person on a nozzle walking to the side or front, knocking down the flames on the move.

These engines carry enough hose to extend their reach by 800 feet as well as flares and other devices to ignite backfires or to burn out fuels to strengthen a control line.  Chainsaws with safety equipment, pumps for moving water to the fire from another water source, and enough equipment to sustain a three- to five-person crew for up to 5 days are also on board.  These items are inventoried daily to ensure all the proper equipment is in place and readily accessible. 

This standardized engine fleet throughout the BLM allows for cost savings and flexibility.  Engine crews are interchangeable.  It is fairly common for firefighters or engine bosses to fly to other parts of the country (or the next BLM fire yard) and staff another engine, very similar to their own, with little or no additional training.

Fires typically move fast and burn hot in the grass and brushy fuels that dominate most BLM land.  As a result, attacking these fires must be fast-paced and intense to suppress them before they become large and costly.  Operating from some of the most advanced wildland fire engines available helps BLM firefighters accomplish their work with a high degree of success.
As it turned out, 2006 was an especially severe fire year.  Close to 10 million acres burned across the country; in Nevada, 1,279 fires burned more than 1.3 million acres.  While the Suzie Fire was neither the largest nor the smallest fire on BLM land, it illustrates the challenges BLM firefighters face every year in managing wildland fire throughout the West.

Kari Boyd-Peak is currently in the BLM external affairs group at the National Interagency Fire Center.  Previously she was a firefighter and engine module leader in Montana and Nevada and then served as a logistics coordinator at the National Interagency Coordination Center.