Tulsa firefighters battle heat exhaustion
BY NICOLE MARSHALL World Staff Writer
Monday, August 08, 2011
8/08/11 at 7:51 AM
Related Story: Wildfires threaten, destroy homes
Read more about Tulsa heatwave and drought, get weather updates and see photos and video.
If it feels like it can't get much hotter, try being a firefighter.
Tulsa firefighters have been battling everything from arsons at vacant houses, to raging wildfires that destroyed homes during record-breaking temperatures.
There have been 11 Tulsa firefighters transported to area hospitals this summer to be treated for symptoms of heat exhaustion, said Michael Baker, director of Emergency Medical Services for the Tulsa Fire Department.
Baker's staff is responsible for setting up rehabilitation for the firefighters, including cooling stations, fans and cold packs.
"Anytime it gets up into hundred degrees it really starts to be taxing," Baker said. "And then you start having multiple incidents per day ..."
Seven of the firefighters who were transported were fighting the massive wildfire Tuesday afternoon in northern Tulsa and Turley, he said. Some of the firefighters who fought the wildfire also battled a huge house fire in southern Tulsa just hours earlier that day.
Baker said the heat index measured as high as 120 degrees while firefighters were fighting that fire. Fire officials have learned to factor in another 10 degrees when firefighters are fighting a fire in the direct sunlight, he said.
Nausea, vomiting, severe muscle cramps and rapid heart rate are some of the symptoms firefighters suffer when they start to be overcome by the heat.
To prevent symptoms, firefighters are encouraged to stay hydrated, even before responding to a fire.
"We make sure they start in the morning before they come in, in case they have to respond to something early in the day," Baker said.
Baker estimated the protective clothing and air packs that firefighters wear adds about 50 pounds of weight. When they sweat, the water soaks into the clothing and makes it heavier, he said. However, the gear is just doing what it is designed to do.
"Bunker gear is designed to help regulate the body temperature. It wicks off the moisture," Baker said.
The heat that firefighters encounter from the actual fire varies, Baker said.
"It depends a lot on the type of fuel," Baker said. "Brush piles generate significantly more heat than just grass, and once it reaches the trees, you will have flames 20 feet in the air."
Firefighters are fighting the heat
- Eleven Tulsa firefighters have been transported to hospitals to be treated for heat exposure symptoms this summer.
- Firefighters work in shifts of 20 to 30 minutes during extreme heat before taking breaks for water.
- Protective clothing and air packs add about 50 pounds of weight for firefighters to carry.
- During the massive wildfire Tuesday, firefighters fought back flames in a heat index of 120 degrees. Fire officials typically add another 10 degrees for direct sunlight.
- While fighting wildfires in rural areas, firefighters might not have a cool place to recover for several hours.
Fire danger 'extreme' today
With temperatures forecast near 110 degrees and wind speeds increasing, the fire danger in much of the state is "extreme" on Monday, the National Weather Service in Tulsa said.
"A wildfire outbreak is possible in parts of the area on Monday," forecasters said. "The ongoing serious fire weather conditions (Sunday) could worsen on Monday as winds increase ahead of an approaching cold front. Even though some rain has fallen in the region, fine fuels will dry rapidly.
"Emergency response and firefighting agencies should closely follow the forecast and make appropriate plans to handle the potential for worsening fire weather conditions Monday.
"Strong and erratic winds will also be possible near (isolated) storms ... which could further exacerbate problems fighting any wildfires."
Nicole Marshall 918-581-8459
A Tulsa firefighter pours water on his head while fighting a wildfire last week. MIKE SIMONS / Tulsa World
Tulsa firefighter Matt Kuykendall cools down by pouring water on his face while fighting a house fire last week. MIKE SIMONS / Tulsa World