Preparing For A Wildfire Season That Does Not End

BY BOBBY HALTON

On the morning of October 26, 2006, fire service groups and civic leaders were visiting together in Washington, D.C., to discuss how to raise the awareness of national and local politicians on critical fire service issues. Tom Harbour, director of fire & aviation management for the USDA Forest Service, was gracious enough to spend a few valuable moments with the group, and the conversation naturally turned to a subject in which Tom has vast experience and insight-wildland firefighting.

Some photos of FDNY firefighters joining in the battle to contain several large brush fires in the spring and summer of 2006 were on hand. We noticed all of the firefighters were in structural gear and they were silhouetted by truck companies and dramatic flame fronts. We remarked about the incredible risks these brush/grass fires can pose to even the most fit and experienced firefighters, who in many cases lack the necessary training and proper equipment to deal with a burgeoning wildfire/urban interface and a wildfire threat in America that now seems to have no off-season.

At the same time that we were sitting safely in our nation’s capital talking about the need for more equipment, more training, and better information and communication for interface fires, a devastating manifestation of this threat was setting a deadly trap almost 3,000 miles away for five of our brethren, the men of Alandale Engine 57 from the San Jacinto (CA) Ranger District.

Engine 57, commanded by Captain Mark Loutzenhiser, with Fire Engine Operator Jess McClean, Assistant Fire Engine Operator Jason McKay, Firefighter Daniel Hoover-Najera, and Firefighter Pablo Cerda, dutifully headed to a remote home threatened by the fast-moving interface wildfire that soon would be known to the world, infamously, as the Esperanza Fire. Later that day, those five experienced, trained, and properly equipped wildland firefighters became tragically entrapped next to their engine during initial fire attack operations. Three of the firefighters died at the scene and two after being airlifted; all lost their lives to the severe burns they sustained when a 90-foot-high wall of fire was driven over their position by fierce winds.

The Esperanza Fire should raise alarms in every district that is facing the wildfire/urban interface challenge, which exists in every sector of our country.

The American fire service has ranked 2006 as the worst wildland season since 1960. The statistics are appalling, and we’ll start with the worst of them: There were 25 wildland and interface fire-related fatalities last year, 14 of which were firefighters. Approximately 2,188 structures were destroyed during the 2006 wildfires, including 687 residences, 65 commercial buildings, and 1,436 outbuildings. The USFA National Incident Information Center reported as of mid-November that 89,524 wildland fires had burned some 9,506,129 acres, approaching the total for the worst year on record, 1996, when 91,862 fires were reported.

Incident action reports indicate that initial attack efforts controlled 98 percent of the 2006 wildfires within the first 24 hours, but we can take little comfort from this benchmark when the scale of destruction from the remaining two percent is measured. The cost of fighting these interface and wildland fires has averaged more than $1 billion annually over the past five years. These annual costs are divided among the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the National Park Service, and the Forest Service, but more than 90 percent of the burden falls on the Forest Service.

It is clear that a large portion of the urban/wildland interface already has been developed and that this development will continue. The protection of lives and property will increasingly fall to the local fire departments as the cost to fight these fires continues to rise. In a greater sense, grass and brush fires can occur anywhere-you do not need a burning forest to qualify for a deadly fire. According to a November 2006 Forest Service audit report by the Inspector General’s Office of the United States Department of Agriculture, the Forest Service has identified that the majority of these costs are directly linked to protecting private property in the wildland interface. Forest Service managers are being directed to renegotiate their agreements with state and local governments to apportion interface protection responsibilities and costs as required.

The Forest Service also is finding it necessary to redefine the protection areas to reflect state and local governments’ added responsibility in light of the growth within the interface of private homes. This means local fire departments and their communities are going to be asked to do more. According to Tom Harbour, his agency will follow up on the inspector general’s recommendations. “We’re not going to walk away, but we will engage in a vigorous debate with our partners about the right way to split the pie,” he said.

Unquestionably, rural residents have a responsibility to minimize the dangers to which they are exposed. How that should be done is becoming increasingly controversial. The Firewise program (http://firewise.org) provides residents with ways to increase the safety and survivability of their property in a fire. “Home ignitions are not likely unless flames and firebrand ignitions occur within 40 meters [131 feet] of the structure,” notes U.S. Forest Service research scientist Jack Cohen.

The International Urban Wildland Interface Code (IUWIC), developed by the International Code Council, contains guidelines to build safer and smarter in areas prone to wildfires. Clearing a distance of 200 or more feet creates defensible space; add fire resistant roofing materials such as tile or tin coverings, and responsible maintenance, and you have a defensible property.

Regardless of what happens in the upcoming fiscal negotiations with the Forest Service, we have a moral responsibility to properly equip and train our firefighters to respond to wildland and grass fires. Local decisions determine what equipment you choose to provide, the level of training, and the kind of apparatus on which you will respond.

Educate your local politicians. Many of them have no idea of how dangerous and expensive these nonstructure fires can be. Get your code development and enforcement folks educated and organized to develop and enforce the ordinances we need to render these events survivable. These are critical issues: You need to begin to assess your threat level and ask yourself some tough questions. This is a growing problem and a growing, deadly threat.

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