Photo Credit: Ever feel like you need a dictionary just for wildfire terms? Here you go! Photo by Merriam Webster shared via Flickr Creative Commons

“What did the IC say about the fuel models in the area where we’ll be performing burn out operations? I can’t wait to get my red card and work on my faller quals!”

“The fire behavior forecast suggests that it’ll be weeks until we contain the fire, but thanks to the eastern fire break and the lack of aerial fuels, we’re in relatively good shape.”


No matter how hard fire managers and communicators try, we’re bound to use a word or two that someone we’re talking to doesn’t understand.

Here’s a quick refresher on commonly used wildfire-related terms; using definitions from the National Park Service/USDA Forest Service wildfire terminology glossary, when available.

Already fluent? Many of our readers already speak fire-ease quite well; if that’s you, consider sharing this post with a new practitioner!

Wildfire Terminology You Might Encounter

Aerial fuels: All live and dead vegetation in the forest canopy or above surface fuels, including tree branches, twigs, cones, snags, moss and high brush.

Burning index: An estimate of the potential difficulty of fire containment as it relates to the flame length at the most rapidly spreading portion of a fire’s perimeter.

Command staff: The information officer, safety officer and liaison officer (working on a wildfire). They report directly to the incident commander and may have assistants.

Contain a fire: A fuel break around the fire has been completed. This break may include natural barriers or manually and/or mechanically constructed ones.

Defensible space: An area, either naturally or human-made, where material capable of causing a fire to spread has been treated, cleared, reduced or changed to act as a barrier between an advancing wildland fire and the loss of life, property or resources. In practice, “defensible space” is defined as an area a minimum of 30 feet around a structure that is cleared of flammable brush or vegetation.

Smoke carrying through the trees near a home. There is a buffer ("defensible space") between the home and its surrounding forest.

Thanks to defensible space (minus the firewood on the deck), this home withstood recent wildfires. Credit: Frank Riley, Chestatee/ Chattahoochee Resource Conservation and Development Council

Drip torch: A hand-held device for igniting fires by dripping flaming liquid fuel on the materials to be burned; consists of a fuel fount, burner arm and igniter. Fuel used is generally a mixture of diesel and gasoline.

Fire practitioner holding a drip torch

A drip torch is a hand-held device used to ignite fires by dripping flaming liquid fuel on the materials to be burned. Credit: Clay Carrington

Fire adapted community (FAC): A framework that communities use to live more safely with wildfire (i.e., develop more community wildfire resilience). FACs take action before, during and after wildfires. Because every community is unique, the steps and strategies they take to improve their wildfire resilience will vary from place to place.

FAC practitioner: Someone who advances community wildfire resilience. Practitioners may work on resilience as part of their profession, or as a community organizer. Work conducted by practitioners can include local, regional, statewide and/or national initiatives. While all people can be part of a fire adaptation effort, practitioners are set apart by the fact that their work goes beyond their own home and personal responsibility. They work with the intention to create not just personal resilience, but community resilience.

Fire behavior forecast: A prediction of probable fire behavior, usually prepared by a fire behavior officer, in support of fire suppression or prescribed burning operations.

Fire break: A natural or constructed barrier used to stop or check fires that may occur, or to provide a control line from which to work.

Fire triangle: Instructional aid in which the sides of a triangle are used to represent the three factors (oxygen, heat and fuel) necessary for combustion and flame production; removal of any of the three factors causes flame production to cease.

Learning network: A group of people who connect with one another to facilitate new possibilities and actions. Imagine meeting with and talking to people who lived in other parts of the country who worked on projects similar to yours, bouncing ideas and questions off one another, and maybe working on projects together. That’s a learning network. In our case, we have a learning network made up of FAC practitioners, all working and learning together about how to create wildfire resilience. A learning network isn’t in most wildfire glossaries, but it’s certainly in ours!

Pack test: A test used to determine the aerobic capacity of fire suppression and support personnel and to assign physical fitness scores. The test consists of walking a specified distance, with or without a weighted pack, in a predetermined period of time, with altitude corrections.

Personnel protective equipment (PPE): The proper equipment and clothing needed to mitigate the risk of injury from, or exposure to, hazardous conditions encountered while working. For those working with wildfire, PPE includes, but is not limited to, 8-inch high-laced leather boots with lug soles, a fire shelter, a hard hat with chin strap, goggles, ear plugs, aramid shirts and trousers, leather gloves and individual first aid kits.

Fire practitioners wearing personal protective equipment while working on a prescribed fire

For people working on a prescribed or wildland fire, having a fire shelter (worn on their back) is part of their personal protective equipment. Credit: Penny Morgan, University of Idaho

Red card: A fire qualification card issued to fire-rated persons showing their training needs and their qualifications to fill specified fire suppression and support positions in a large fire suppression or incident organization.

Red flag on the beach

Red flags mean different things in different places. By the ocean, they typically refer to dangerous surf/swimming conditions. In the realm of wildfire, a “red flag warning” refers to weather patterns that increase the risk of wildfire. Credit: ashleigh290 shared via Flickr Creative Commons

Red flag warning: A term used by fire weather forecasters to alert forecast users to an ongoing or imminent critical fire weather pattern.

Swamper: (1) A worker who assists fallers and/or sawyers by clearing away brush, limbs and small trees. The swamper carries fuel, oil and tools and watches for dangerous situations. (2) A worker on a dozer crew who pulls winch line, helps maintain equipment, etc., to speed suppression work on a fire.

Wildland-urban interface: The line, area or zone where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland or vegetative fuels.

These terms are just the tip of the iceberg and definitions often vary from source to source. The National Wildfire Coordinating Group also has a comprehensive glossary, if you’re looking for another source.

What about “Types?”

Type 5, Type 2, Type 1 … the types of wildfire incidents are a whole other can of worms. Check out this rundown of the different types of incidents.

You Tell Me

What wildfire terms are commonly misunderstood? What’s the one term that everyone should understand? Provide your thoughts in the comment section below!

Editor’s note: The definitions provided above are not necessarily the best definitions to use when conducting public outreach. This content was originally published in August, 2017.

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