What Are Fire Lines?

Mary McMahon

Fire lines, or firelines, are areas which are cleared of vegetation in the hopes of stopping or at least slowing a fire. A fire line may also be called a firebreak, in reference to the idea that it is meant to break the path of the fire, giving firefighting personnel a chance to get the fire under control. A wide variety of tools can be used to create the lines, and they take a number of forms, from natural features like rivers to rototilled areas near the front lines of a fire.

Fire lines are commonly used against wildland fires.
Fire lines are commonly used against wildland fires.

The creation of fire lines is critical in wildland fire fighting, because without fire lines, a fire can quickly get out of control. By depriving the fire of fuel, the line slows the advance of a fire, and confines it to a specific area, which can make it much easier to control. Typically, these lines are made by churning up the earth with shovels or bulldozers. Sometimes firefighters take advantage of roads and paths in the way of a fire, using them as firebreaks rather than trying to cut fresh lines. A line can also be made with the use of a controlled burn which consumes the fuel in an area before the fire has a chance to reach it.

Ponds can be incorporated into a fire line.
Ponds can be incorporated into a fire line.

Working on the fire lines can be extremely dangerous, as it puts firefighters in the direct path of the fire. There is always a danger that a fire will jump the line, trapping firefighters between the original fire and the new fire, and firefighters tend to be especially careful while on the lines as a result. The lines are often considered the front lines, because it is common to establish a foothold on the fire line and then work inwards to control the fire.

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Gravel may be used to make a path, also used as a fire line.
Gravel may be used to make a path, also used as a fire line.

During catastrophic wildfires, fire lines can sprawl across immense distances, and it is not always possible to create fire lines around an entire fire. In these instances, firefighters choose to focus on a specific area, and spotting aircraft are used to ensure that the firefighters are not surrounded by the fire while they work.

In especially fireprone areas, people are often encouraged to design fire lines around their homes, so that they will be safer in the event of a fire. These lines can be deliberately built into landscaping, in the form of an artfully curved driveway, a strategic series of gravel paths, or a well-placed pond. In addition to creating fire lines around a home, it is also a good idea to keep the vegetation close to a home well trimmed, so that if a fire jumps the line, it will still have trouble reaching the house.

Fire lines are often made by churning up the earth with bulldozers.
Fire lines are often made by churning up the earth with bulldozers.

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Discussion Comments


@Laotionne - Fighting fire with fire might also be used to refer to the controlled burns that some places have so that there will not be so many dead trees and other growth that might otherwise be fuel for a larger fire. Controlled smaller fires are commonplace in many areas.

The fire department where I used to live would set these small fires at a certain tire every year. It was a way to protect the wooded areas and give the firemen training in the process.


@Laotionne - The expression fighting fire with fire does has some relevance in the firefighting profession. Basically, what firefighters do is cut a fire line ahead of a fire and then burn the trees and other fuel that is on the same side of the fire line as the fire they are trying to control.

In the best of situations the two fires will meet and then burn out because there is no new fuel to burn. I'm not a firefighter so I'm sure I'm over simplifying the way this works, but that is the basic strategy of fighting fire with fire.


Has anyone here heard the expression "fighting fire with fire?" I am wondering whether this is actually a technique firefighters use to put out fires. Or is this just an expression like "an eye for an eye" and other similar sayings that mean about the same thing?


Fighting forest fires has to be one of the most dangerous jobs in the world. I have the highest respect for the men and women who do this job. Can you imagine what it would be like trying to dig away plants and remove brush and trees to create a fire line when a huge fire is roaring and headed right at you, and there is smoke all around you? This takes a lot of courage.

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