Wrap-Up Of The 1998 Wildfire Season

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...


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On May 15, NIFC coordinated requests from the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance for firefighting resources to be sent to Mexico and the Central American countries that were hit hard by these massive fires. By late June, the fires subsided and it was determined that over one million acres had been burned in Mexico alone. Much of the vegetation that held the land together in these countries had been burned away. As the torrential rains from Hurricane Mitch inundated some of these countries, floods and mudslides "of biblical proportions" destroyed villages and killed thousands of inhabitants.

Canada experienced significant wildfire activity during its entire fire season. By late September, 10,466 fires had burned over 4,462,743 hectares, which equals 11,027,437 acres. The NIFC filled aid requests from Canada by sending infrared aircraft to map fires, 11 firefighting crews, supplies, radios and other equipment.

Five volunteer firefighters died in the line of duty in the Australian state of Victoria on Dec. 2, 1998, as they were overrun by fire during that country's first major bushfire of the year. They were fighting to save the small town of Linton. More than 300 firefighters using 42 engines and five aircraft battled the flames that at one time were burning along a two-mile front.

In Conclusion

According to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, ID, in its weekly report of Nov. 28: "There was moderate fire activity in the southern area of the United States. Virginia was in high fire danger. During a wildland fire, a Virginia Department of Forestry tractor/bulldozer operator was overrun by fire and received minor burns."

Also in Virginia, dry conditions and high winds have caused two large wildfires to consume nearly 2,500 acres as of Dec. 3. Fifteen federal, state, local and out-of-state hand crews were working these fires.

Ann Arundel County, MD, Fire and Rescue Services has experienced a significant increase in SWI fire activity this year due to unusually dry conditions. From Jan. 1 to Dec. 3, 1998, there were 1,366 responses to SWI fires in the county. That is nearly double the usual fires in any given year.

Since July, the county has instituted a "Brush Box" response of two engines, two brush fire units and a battalion chief on the report of a wildland fire. Fifteen alarms were transmitted on Nov. 24 to contain two simultaneously ignited fires. No structures have been damaged, but smoke from some of these fires has caused health problems among those with chronic respiratory ailments.

Fire analysts are predicting that Florida may experience yet another fire siege during the winter of 1998/99 if significant rains don't fall on the Sunshine State. Let's hope that it rains just enough to prevent another fire siege, but that the sun will shine enough to make the Florida Chamber of Commerce and its winter residents and tourists smile, warmly.

The wildland and SWI fires were statistically down during 1998, nationwide, excepting Florida and Texas. Thankfully, loss of life to civilians and firefighters were also down. And that is of significant importance.

Yet, these fires are weather-driven events. During 1999, we may see dramatic increases in wildland and SWI fire activity if the weather turns hot, dry and windy. The structural and wildland firefighting communities must move ahead and prepare for worst-case scenarios.

As surely as the sun rises there will be wildland and SWI fires in many areas of this country and around the world. How successfully the fire services mitigate, control and suppress these oftentimes destructive fires is dependent on how well we are prepared.

Be very careful out there. It can get very dangerous very quickly! Have a happy, healthy and safe New Year.


Robert M. Winston, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a district fire chief in the Boston Fire Department with extensive experience and training in wildland and SWI protection. Questions and comments may be sent to him via e-mail at dfcwins@idt.net.