The Difference Between Containing and Controlling a Wildfire

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The Difference Between Containing and Controlling a Wildfire

Wildland firefighters do a lot of work when they go out into the field, but that hard work isn’t often reflected in the clearest terms for the broader public. The words contained and controlled are confusing, and people often don’t get the full picture of what these firefighters accomplish in the line of duty. There is an important difference between containing and controlling a wildfire, and understanding that difference will highlight just how much work firefighters do to eliminate these dangers.

Understanding What a Wildfire Is

Knowing how wildfires work is the first step in understanding the difference between containing and controlling a wildfire. In most instances, wildfires start naturally, especially in areas of low moisture and low humidity. In other instances, a human-made spark can light up an area, and if conditions are just right, it can lead to some devastating fires. The spark is an important part of creating a wildfire, but it won’t grow unless the environmental conditions are right. Wildfire-producing conditions include the following:

  • High winds
  • High temperatures
  • Low moisture

In conditions like these, there is a lot of fuel for the fires to grow since trees, leaves, and shrubs are dry. Depending on where a wildfire is happening and how much fuel is available, it could expand for miles. However, in other instances, wildfires stop naturally after a short period. Something like heavy rain or sudden inaccessibility of flammable materials can stop the spread. For example, if a fire spreads to a point where there’s a river, bare ground, or rocks, it will have a harder time spreading.

While nature can put out wildfires, we typically don’t want to let things burn until the fire naturally dissipates. Instead, wildland firefighters must get out, survey the situation, and find the best possible way to stop these fires before serious harm to people and property occurs. However, because these fires are so big, it’s a job that’s easier said than done. Firefighters do a lot to suppress these fires, tackling the main three ingredients that they need—heat, oxygen, and fuel.

What Does Contained Mean?

Wildfires can rage for days, destroying hundreds or thousands of acres, but that doesn’t stop wildland firefighters from doing their best to put them out. The first step in stopping a wildfire is containing it, which means creating fuel breaks to prevent it from spreading. If you want to stop a fire, you need to remove the fuel source. If a fire doesn’t have fuel to spread, it won’t go anywhere and will ultimately fizzle out.

Wildland firefighters create a fuel break around a certain perimeter to contain a fire, cutting off the fire’s ability to spread further. There may be some areas where fuel is naturally cut off, like a river or cliff side, but firefighters also cut and dig, cutting off access to additional burnable vegetation. In some areas, firefighters do this with hand tools, but in others, they use bulldozers to clear trees and brush. Another way to create fuel breaks is by setting smaller, controllable fires that rob the bigger fire of fuel.

However, because wildfires are so big, creating that fuel break perimeter happens in steps. Depending on the wind, firefighters may focus on one part and cut that off before moving on to other parts. Once firefighters have successfully created a fuel break around the entire wildfire’s perimeter, they can claim 100 percent containment. At this point, the fire shouldn’t spread anymore, and firefighters can devote the rest of their time to putting out what remains of the fire.

What Does Controlled Mean?

Contained means that the wildfire is stuck in a certain area and won’t spread any farther, and controlled means that the wildland firefighters have completely extinguished the fire. It takes a long time to control a fire, especially a wildland one that covers many miles. Plus, on top of handling the main fire, wildland firefighters need to manage spot fires and do their best to prevent and eliminate any flare-ups.

However, even when firefighters have controlled a fire, not everything is safe yet. Firefighters still monitor the area, keeping an eye on hot spots. The fire is only completely out when firefighters can go days without detecting any hot spots. Hot spots themselves aren’t super dangerous, but if the firefighters leave, something could happen where brush ends up in one of those locations, and another fire could start. Monitoring these areas is an extra layer of protection to ensure the fire doesn’t come back.

The Important Differences

Basically, the main difference between contained and controlled is that contained stops the fire from spreading, and controlled means the fire is gone. However, after containing the fire, wildland firefighters still strengthen their fuel break perimeter, removing other unburnt fuel around the fire. Removing fuel like this is important because it helps ensure the fire cannot escape the boundaries of the line. A strong gust can catch an ember and keep the fire going, something every wildland firefighter wants to avoid.

In Practice

In practice, when there is a wildfire spreading, wildland firefighters do their best to survey the damage, monitor the wind, and see where it’s going. From there, they can do their best to eliminate fuel sources and establish a fuel break perimeter. They’ll also continue actively controlling the fire, which includes dropping water and flame retardant on it.

After completely establishing a perimeter and containing the fire, all the focus can go toward controlling it—extinguishing the flame, putting out any flare-ups, and keeping an eye on hotspots. It’s an extensive process that takes days, sometimes even weeks. But without the effort wildland firefighters put in, these fires would rage on for much longer.

The difference between containing and controlling a wildfire is important lingo to understand, especially if you’re a wildland firefighter. If you’re a wildland firefighter and want your crew to be safe when you contain a wildfire, come to us at The Supply Cache. We have portable wildland fire water tanks and other invaluable gear. A water supply like this is crucial for containing fires in remote locations where access to water is sparse. Browse our website or contact us today!

The Difference Between Containing and Controlling a Wildfire