Is Wildland Fire Behavior Really Predictable?

“Can wildland fire behavior really be predicted? That depends on how accurate you expect the answer to be. Minute by minute, movement of a fire will probably never be predictable, certainly not from weather conditions forecasted many hours before the fire.”

So says the introduction by Richard C. Rothermel in his report, How to Predict the Spread and Intensity of Forest and Range Fires [1].

In an article written by Carl C. Wilson, research forester for the U.S. Forest Service, titled Fatal and Near-Fatal Forest Fires, The Common Denominators [2], under “Surprising Factors” he notes:

Many firefighters are surprised to learn that fatal and near-fatal incidents occur in fairly light fuels, on small fires or isolated sectors of large fires, and that behavior is relatively quiet just before the incident.

THE CAMPBELL PREDICTION SYSTEM is about making predictions of changing fire behavior—that may occur at any time—and doing it while on the fire line. You may be surprised at how simply it can be accomplished. Some seasoned firefighters used these techniques, but without a fire behavior language they could not communicate their ideas or teach others. I have utilized this system many years on the fire line. In order that I might teach others how to make fire line behavior predictions, I have developed some tools, created diagrams to illustrate technical points and have written a fire behavior language. Learn these valuable lessons and this simple language to communicate fire behavior predictions on wildland fires.

Who is the Book For?

This book is written for those who want to know why, when and where wildfire behavior may change. While most fire behavior training provides a good background, it falls short of a full explanation of when and where fire behavior may change. The usual generalizations made about fire behavior in instructions given the firefighters are not addressed in this publication.

Instead, the focus here is on the methods available which empower a firefighter to predict when and where fire behavior potential varies. A fire behavior language is presented to enable firefighters to communicate their predictions.

If firefighters can make accurate predictions as to the specific time and place where changes in fire behavior will occur, then no attack should fail: no firefighter should lose their life or be injured by fire. If more initial attacks were successful, less damage and lower loss of resources would be the result. If there were a more specific way to adjust tactics to incorporate our ability to identify, and thus regulate, the intensity of a prescribed fire, there would be many less failures of prescribed burns.

To the many people who continued to encourage me to write this book, I dedicate this book to you, and offer my sincere thanks.

My special thanks go to the Ventura County Fire Department Chief and many department personnel who have given me opportunities and feedback that made this effort possible. They financed the first test of a training program and gave me valuable critique and guidance. The U.S. Forest Service and State Department of Forestry and Fire also provided me opportunities to observe fires which helped me develop and test my system under actual wildfire operational conditions. This has given me the opportunity to prove that the CPS works in the field, on the fire line for firefighters.