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Another year of structural wildland interzone (SWI) fires of historic proportions has ended. Florida suffered the largest SWI fire losses in its history. (See the September issue of Firehouse®, "Florida Fire Siege '98.") At about the same time, Texas was enduring its own significant wildland and SWI fire problems. However, the Lone Star State's SWI problems lasted for most of the summer. As of this writing, one volunteer firefighter had died in the line of duty while suppressing one of the many wildfires that had burned in Texas.
The spring SWI fire season started off slowly in certain areas of the United States due to cool, wet weather from the effects of the El Nino phenomenon. However, in sharp contrast, the areas from Texas to Georgia were hotter and drier than normal and drought index readings were on the rise.
Photo by Robert M. Winston
A Massachusetts Air National Guard helicopter flies a "Bambi Bucket" during firefighting operations. (Note: The jetliner in the upper left corner was a mile away.)
In my home state of Massachusetts, SWI fire activity was slow to moderate and sporadic, as was the case in the northeastern United States. Massachusetts recorded 2,284 reported wildland fires that burned 2,689 acres. During a dry period in the fall, a few moderate-size fires occurred several miles to the west and southwest of Boston and several other locations across the state. Statewide, SWI fires damaged a small number of structures during 1998.
The months of May, June and July brought tremendous wildland and SWI fires to Florida, Georgia, Texas and Oklahoma. Significant fire activity occurred in August and September as hot and dry conditions persisted throughout most of the western United States. Arizona, California, Washington, Idaho and Utah experienced significant large-scale wildland and SWI fires.
Specially trained Interagency Fire Prevention and Education Teams were deployed to many of the states that were experiencing or could experience significant wildland and SWI fire activity. These highly successful teams use a proactive approach in educating the public about wildland fire dangers that ultimately leads to a reduction of human-caused fires.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) Office of Public Affairs in Boise, ID, overall, the U.S. wildland fire season was relatively slow compared to recent years (obviously not the case in Florida and Texas). As of Nov. 30, there were a total of 76,500 reported wildland fires burning 2,281,605 acres in the U.S. By contrast in 1996, a very intense and long fire season, NIFC reported 96,363 fires affecting 6,692,708 acres.
Photo by Robert M. Winston
The Bourne, MA, Fire Department's Brush Breaker operates at a recent wildfire.
At the 1998 Fire Service Leadership Summit held in St. Louis in August, Garry Briese, executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs ( IAFC), stated, "Fire is not a priority to public officials in this country. In their minds, America's not burning anymore. The only part of the fire problem that's growing in the United States is the wildland/urban interface (SWI) fire problem."
I agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Briese's accurate statement about the expanding SWI fire problem. My question to him and the IAFC, et al, is what measures are you and your association taking to help mitigate this major fire service conundrum?
Wildfires In Other Countries
By mid-May, hundreds of wildland fires were blazing across Mexico and portions of Central America. Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Nicaragua were under a fire siege. Smoke from these fires filtered into Arizona, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.