A Lesson in Wildfire Safety

SCE workers in mountain areas get a course on the potential dangers of fire so they can be safe in the field.
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Stories : Safety

A Lesson in Wildfire Safety

SCE workers in mountain areas get a course on the potential dangers of fire so they can be safe in the field.
Photo Credit: Ryan Stewart (main photo)

SHAVER LAKE, Calif.—Ryan Welton spends almost every day in the forest as a journeyman lineman at Southern California Edison’s Shaver Lake Service Center in the mountains 60 miles east of Fresno.

Even though it is a high fire risk area with millions of dead and dying trees caused by the drought and bark beetle infestation, Welton never gave much thought to the fact he could be in personal danger while he works.

Wildfire expert Don Will (center) uses a sand table to show wildfire dangers in mountains and canyons.      Photo: Mark Morris
Wildfire expert Don Will (center) uses a sand table to show wildfire dangers in mountains and canyons. Photo: Mark Morris

The importance of being aware of his location and potential fire weather conditions was brought home to Welton during two recent daylong classes on wildfire behavior that SCE sponsored for its employees in Shaver Lake and Big Creek.

“I learned a lot of things I kind of knew before but didn’t have a complete understanding of,” Welton said.

The course, taught by wildfire veteran Don Will, emphasized situational awareness. It covered the importance of understanding how heat, relative humidity, wind, exposure and topography can interact to create dangerous fire conditions in the mountains.

Will spoke from experience. He was the fire chief who fought a wildfire that threatened Big Creek in 1994.

Wildfire expert Don Will (left) uses a flashlight to show how the sun and shadows can affect wildfire behavior on different-facing slopes.
Wildfire expert Don Will (left) uses a flashlight to show how the sun and shadows can affect wildfire behavior on different-facing slopes.

“You have to recognize the fact of where you are in the workplace and keep yourself safe,” he said.

In one example that prompted knowing nods around the room, Will pointed out the particular danger of box canyons. With only one way in and out and, because of their shape and steep slopes, they can act as a funnel for a wildfire.

“We’ve got box canyons all over our district,” said Mark Morris, SCE’s Shaver Lake district manager.

Will also warned about the wind.

“Wind has the biggest impact of anything we do in firefighting,” Will said. “When the wind blows, all bets are off and you need to be really cautious.”

He used a three-foot-by-three-foot sand table to demonstrate the dangers in the field. He sculpted the sand to represent mountains and canyons and then, using a flashlight, replicated sun exposure on the various slopes. He walked the SCE workers through different scenarios of slope aspect, temperature, humidity and wind direction to show where the biggest dangers could be depending on the time of day.

Wind has the biggest impact of anything we do in firefighting. When the wind blows, all bets are off and you need to be really cautious.”

Don Will 

Will also emphasized the importance of having a lookout and communications to keep each other safe and to identify escape routes and safety zones. He noted, for instance, that to be safe from the heat of a wildfire with 10-foot flames, you need at least 40 feet of ground clearance from the fire.

LaDonna Crane, who is a forest attendant at SCE’s Camp Edison recreational area by day and the volunteer fire chief at Big Creek at night, said she worries about fires all the time.

“I really related to the fact that wind is a factor, slope is a factor and that where Big Creek is located is a box canyon,” she said.

Seth Wood, an SCE territorial utility man, said the information he learned in the class will be valuable as he works in the field throughout the area.

“The big thing I learned?” he asked. “Have yourself a plan.”