Fighting Fire with Fire [Photo Essay]

This photo essay documents a trip made by UK firefighters, land managers, and researchers, to participate in a “Technical Fire Management” training course in Catalonia led by the GRAF bombers (‘bombers’ being Catalan for fire fighter), Catalonia’s highly skilled forest fire fighters.

The trip formed part of my work whilst leading a Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) funded Knowledge Exchange project that links wildfire academics with various Fire and Rescue Services in the UK. The main aim of the project was to incorporate cutting-edge wildfire research (for example, wildfire spread simulation models, unmanned aerial reconnaisance systems etc.) into the wildfire training programmes offered by UK Fire and Rescue Services.

Perhaps surprisingly, the UK Fire and Rescue Services respond to more than 60,000 wildfires annually, which is around one-third of all fire ‘call-outs’. Despite this, specialised training is only offered by a handful of Services. Opportunities for UK fire personnel to participate in ‘live’ training fires are rare due to the unpredictable British weather and strict restrictions on when land burning can take place. One solution in recent years has been to send UK fire fighters to undertake training abroad in places like Catalonia and Kruger National Park in South Africa.

In February, around 20 officers from six UK Fire and Rescue Services, two Danish fire fighters, a land manager and myself (a researcher) flew to Barcelona where we were picked up and driven to the GRAF bomber academy in the suburbs. And so began a tough week of learning, hard labour, and fire, of course.

A full photo gallery containing 75 photos from this campaign can be found here.

1. Arrival

Before the first classroom exercises of the day, the training course participants walk across the parade for a ceremonial photo under the national flags of the participant countries. Possibly ironic that the Catalans had mistaken Northern Ireland for the Republic of Ireland!

2. Into the forest

Each day begins with a briefing, outlining which plot of land we’d each be working on. The international team attracted the local news broadcaster which decided to cover the training course.

3. Physical fire models

Before working on a landscape-scale fires, one teaching strategy uses small patches of straw to represent hillslopes and forests.

4. Thinking on your feet

Fire chief Marc Castelnou invites one of the British fire fighters to devise a strategy for stopping the spread of the fire through the straw.

5. Prescribed burning in the winter

In the early spring, it is the job of the GRAF bombers to assess the Catalan forests for fire risk. In the cool and relatively humid months of January through to March, low severity fires can be used to clear the forest floor of leaf litter and other low lying fuels that might act as ‘ladder fuels’ in the long dry summers, sending fire into the tree canopies. Here the training course participants are being briefed on using ‘test’ fires on small patches of vegetation to assess risk before undergoing a landscape-wide fire.

6. Raking a fire break

The fuel clearance fires are carried out in blocks. Each block must be contained by a fire break to stop the fire from spreading into the surrounding forest. Here the participants are raking the vegetation down to the mineral soil. This discontinuity in the fuel will stop the advance of a low severity fire.

7. Oriol

Catalan fire instructor Oriol Vilalta demonstrates a line ignition pattern with a drip torch. This pattern uses the wind to blow the fire into the ‘black’ (the previously burned area), burning off small strips of land with each line.

8. Ade

Cumbrian fire fighter Adrian Holme looks on as the Catalans demonstrate ignition techniques.

9. Spot fires

Here, one of the GRAF bombers is demonstrating the use of spot fires. These can be used when the surface vegetation is particularly thick. By using spots instead of lines, the fires burn with less severity. It is up to the individual fire officers to decide which technique to deploy.

10. Observation

Much of the training focussed on making careful observations of the fire activity. A Catalan and a Dane are observing this fire, waiting to make a decision as to which ignition technique to use on their next strip of land.

11. Now it’s your turn

On Day 2, it was the Catalans’ turn to be the onlookers. Here a team of Welsh fire fighters work together to burn off strips of land.

12. If a photo could convey heat…

This Welsh officer strains in the heat. An unexpected gust can heat things up a little.

13. Day 3 in the forest

On our third day in the forest, we were at a particularly steep site in a valley. The extra slope increased the severity of the fires. Here a GRAF bomber is using water to suppress the fire severity. It was quite a job to lay a hose many hundreds of metres down a steep slope.

14. The Chief

The Chief GRAF bomber Marc Castelnou stands alone in contemplation whilst surrounded by fire. Marc holds a post-burn briefing at each fire so that lessons-learned can be shared with the group.

15. Smoked olives

On a cool, clear, late winter’s day, the air close to the surface does not mix well in the atmosphere. The smoke hugs the forest and hundreds of sunbeams are scattered towards the camera. Even in Spain, the sun doesn’t get particularly high in the sky in the winter. These olive trees looked particularly majestic in the haze. As farming on the slopes of Catalonia has become less economically viable, vast swathes of the region have been abandoned. The resultant encroachment of a new forest has led to much higher incidences of wildfires in the Catalan summers.