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In Firefighting, what is a Backfire?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A backfire or back burn is a fire that is set deliberately in the path of an oncoming fire. As it burns, it consumes fuel, thereby depriving the primary fire of tinder when it reaches the site. When the technique is executed correctly, it stops a wildfire in its tracks, or confines it, making it much easier to control. Many firefighters are trained in the art of calculating and placing a back burn when they are taught techniques for fighting wildfires.

The technique is one among an assortment of so-called “fire breaks,” all of which are intended to confine a large wildland fire. Various styles of firebreaks are used, ranging from backfires to simple trenches that are intended to arrest the primary fire. When the decision to set a backfire is made, it is an acknowledgment that the primary fire is getting out of control, and that it needs to be arrested before it becomes significantly larger.

Setting this type of fire requires some consideration and calculation. It must be far away enough from the primary fire that it creates a dead zone of consumed tinder, rather than merely adding to the larger fire. It must also be optimally positioned, which requires thinking about the movement of the fire through the course of several hours. When set correctly, the winds of the primary fire will suck the backfire inwards, rather than allowing it to spread outwards, but firefighters also need to monitor the line of the back burn to ensure that it does not jump.

Special tools are available to firefighters for the purpose of creating backfires, such as drip torches for quickly and accurately making a line of fire. It is also important for firefighters to wear protective gear when working with a fire, including heavy fire-resistant pants and jackets and face protection, as it can get very hot. Coordinating efforts is also important, to ensure that everyone is working with the same information.

Amateurs should not attempt to set back fires, because they can be dangerous. One can spread in the wrong direction, creating a bigger problem, and the fire can also cause severe injuries. Any fire that requires this type of fire breaks is generally large enough to need fire professionals, and people should always call for help when they spot wildfires. Even after a fire is out, firefighters should check the area to confirm that nothing is smoldering under leaves or in thick undergrowth, waiting to spread again.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By seag47 — On Sep 09, 2011

I watched some firefighters set a backfire when I was a teenager. It was an awesome thing to see.

Most of the community had evacuated, but I was at home alone. My parents had gone on vacation, and I had no way out. So, I decided to watch the firefighters do their job. I knew I could ride out on their truck with them if I had to escape the area.

They used drip torches to make the fire. They had been communicating by radio with other firefighters all day, trying to decide exactly where to make the backfire and which way the wind would be blowing by the time they set it.

The blaze grew quickly once they started it. It burned as ravenously as the wildfire it was designed to stop. When the big fire reached the area, the backfire did its job.

By StarJo — On Sep 08, 2011

When my dad was burning our garden one year, the fire got so big that he could not control it. He tried to set a backfire, but he only made the situation worse.

He did it properly, but the problem was not with his technique. After he already had the backfire burning to protect our home, the wind direction shifted, and it blew towards the house instead of into the bigger fire.

Thankfully, the fire department was located just minutes away from our home. They put it out before it reached the house, and I doubt Daddy ever tries to burn the garden again.

By letshearit — On Sep 08, 2011

If you watch the news during wild fire season you can see how much work firefighters put into the art of threading backfires. I think that if you are in an isolated area it is a good idea to learn how to backfire yourself, in case you ever need to protect your property.

Unfortunately, learning how to backfire isn't easy and I think that you really need a professional firefighter to teach you. You wouldn’t want to make the situation worse by misjudging the path of a fire or accidentally making the fire bigger.

By manykitties2 — On Sep 08, 2011

Our city has a lot of trouble with brush fires because people often toss their cigarettes out of car windows, and it ends up setting the ground on fire. I've often watched our local firefighters start a backfire effect to make sure that the brush fire doesn't get too out of control and end up running into people's houses.

I really think that people need to be more aware of their surroundings and not randomly toss flaming trash out of cars. We have very dry seasons where I am from, and it would be horrifying if we lost our home due to someone's carelessness.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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