2000 Wildland Fire Season Wrap-Up

The long and destructive 2000 wildland fire season ended, for the most part, with a spate of large fires in Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Virginia with smaller fires were burning in several other states during late October into November.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
For a variety of reasons last year's fire season saw almost double the number of acres burned than over the previous 10 years. In 2000, a total of 7,2250,965 acres burned, compared to a 10-year average of 3,786,411 acres.

It seemed as though this fire season just did not want to end. For example, on Nov. 15, Kentucky had 53,000 acres burning on the Southeast District Complex Fire. It was 90% contained and 711 firefighters were assigned to the fire.

The 2000 wildland fire season also was tragic due to the line-of-duty deaths of 21 structural and wildland career, seasonal, inmate and volunteer firefighters.

The following is from the Public Affairs Office of the National Inter-agency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, ID:

"As a result of La Nina and its influence on weather patterns, a combination of dry fuels and dry, hot weather led to what some are declaring as one of the most severe wildland fire seasons in U.S. history. The absence of the seasonal monsoons in the Southwest, the dry vegetation and record-low fuel moisture and the persistently hot weather across much of the West, culminated in a wildland fire season that began early, became intense and widespread, and lasted for an unusually long period.

"Fire activity began in February with large grass fires in New Mexico. Fire activity moved eastward and northward into Virginia. By the end of February, fires were reported in Louisiana, Missouri and Texas …"

"In April, Type 1 incident command teams managed California's wind-driven Cabbage Fire on the Mendocino National Forest and on the Coon Creek Fire on the Tonto National Forest in Arizona. There were also large fires in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Mississippi, Missouri, Kentucky, Florida, Colorado, North Carolina and North Dakota.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
During the worst day last year, 86 major fires were burning across the country at the same time.

"The fire season began in earnest, however, with an escaped prescribed fire on the Bandelier National Monument near Los Alamos, NM. By the time this fire was controlled, 235 homes in Los Alamos were destroyed and 47,650 acres scorched. (See "The Cerro Grande Fire," Firehouse®, August 2000.)

"Fuel moisture in vegetation dropped to unusually low levels. Drought conditions were reported in many states. Very high to extreme fire danger indices were reported in nearly every western state.

"By July 24, nine of 11 geographic areas, including 11 western states and Texas, were managing many large fires and competing for crews of firefighters, aircraft, equipment, supplies and overhead (management) personnel.

"On July 28, NIFC declared a planning Level 5 - the highest possible - and began implementing strategies to address the serious situation. Meanwhile, more than 20,000 firefighters were working to contain large fires or extinguishing new fires with initial attack. Then the military was requested and 500 Army troops and 500 Marines bolstered firefighting forces on the nations largest fires. Fire managers also requested assistance from their international partners, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and American Samoa.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
It took more than 30,000 firefighters and support personnel from the United States and from countries around the world to control the fire storm.

"Two area command teams were set up in Montana, and two more were added by the end of the month. All of the national Type 1 incident command teams were assigned to fires, and all 70 of the Type 1 hand crews were committed as well as most of the 409 Smokejumpers. Of the 428 Type 2 and crews, about 15 would become available each day only to be reassigned to high priority fires.

"The strategy dictated protection of human life as the first priority and that would not change. However, the second priority was shifted from protection of property and natural resources to initial attack. New fire starts had to be extinguished while they were small. The third priority became the protection of communities, population centers, critical natural resources such as drinking water, infrastructures and utilities."

"By the end of August, two more military battalions and more than 550 Canadian firefighters, plus firefighters from New Zealand and Australia were supporting fires in Montana and elsewhere. In total, more than 30,000 people, including structural firefighters, state personnel, National Guard, Army, Marines, rural firefighters and people from outside the United States were on the firelines or filling overhead positions.

"As August rolled into September, three things happened: first, the number of fires peaked at 86; second, fire activity increased dramatically in the southern states; and third, the hot dry weather eased in the northwest bringing cooler temperatures, higher humidity and rain showers over the central mountains of Idaho and across some of the fires in Montana. Almost overnight, firefighters were suddenly gaining ground, containing more fires than were being reported. The threats to communities from fires diminished the northwest. On Sept. 6, national fire managers dropped the preparedness level down from five to four.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
To support 20,000 firefighters, 500 Army troops and 500 Marines were brought in. This freed up firefighters to handle initial-attack operations.

"As September moved into October, things began to ease a bit more. Southern and southwestern states were still getting new fire starts, though most of those fires were contained within two or three days. By October 10, only one large fire was reported and that was near containment.

"As of Nov. 3, large fires were being fought in the states of Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina and Virginia. National incident management teams were dispatched to these areas.

"As of Nov. 13, there were a reported 90,482 fires, burning 7,250,965 acres, destroying about 860 structures nationwide at a suppression cost of over $900 million to date during the 2000 wildland fire season."

Those are the stats and facts for this one of the worst wildland fire seasons recorded in modern times. No one person and no collective scientific think tank can accurately predict what the 2001 wildland fire season will be like. But, if it is going to be anything like last year's wildland fire season, we all better start to get ready, early on.

Firefighters can prepare by contacting their state or in state federal wildland agency. Also, courses are offered at many state fire training academies. The National Fire Aca-demy offers a complete course in wildland/ urban interface firefighting for structural firefighters. Also, fire departments can prepare by purchasing and using the correct wildland personal protective equipment and firefighting equipment.

The 2000 Wildfire Season

Largest numbers of acres burned

Idaho 1,282,918
Montana 950,120
Nevada 635,742
New Mexico 519,171
Oregon 477,678

Source: NIFC External Affairs Office

Wildland Firefighter Line-Of-Duty Deaths*

A total of 21 U.S. firefighters - 12 career members and nine volunteers - died in the line of duty this year during wildland fire operations:

11 Struck by/trauma
5 Thermal burns
2 Stress/overexertion
2 Electrocution by lightning
1 Unknown illness

* From Jan. 1 through Nov. 10, 2000.


28,462 people were fighting fire
667 crews were assigned
1,249 engines
226 helicopters
42 airtankers
84 large fires burning (100 acres or more)
1,642,579 acres on fire in 16 states

Source: NIFC External Affairs Office

Photo by Robert M. Winston
On the busiest day of the wildfire season, more than 1.6 million acres were burning at the same time in 16 states.

Fuel Moisture Content

Fuel moisture content is defined as the amount of water in a fuel, and is expressed as a percent of dry weight of that fuel. Fuel moisture is determined by weighing a small sample of the fuel, then drying it in an oven, then weighing it again.

Fuel moisture content is one of the most important factors in both ignition and how intensely a particular fuel will burn. As fuel moisture DECREASES, fire behavior INCREASES.

Fuel moisture will vary depending on the size and type of fuels; whether the fuels are live or dead; and on weather conditions. Moisture content can range from 2% to 30% in dead fuels, and 30% to over 300% in live fuels. (According to Bill Teie, author of the textbook, Fire Officer's Handbook on Wildland Firefighting, "Fresh new foliage, growing annual grasses, very green in color can hold 300% of fuel moisture. The cells are saturated with water.")

On the Cave Gulch Fire in the Helena National Forest in Montana, the fuel moisture in large-diameter live trees was measured in the single digits. Kiln-dried lumber is said to have a fuel moisture content of 12% to 15%. This dramatically low fuel moisture content of living trees gave an indicator of how serious the fire danger was in that part of Montana. I saw a large live pine tree that was cut down and ran my hand across the cut. I could feel no moisture and little or no tree sap was evident. Fuels in that forest were in severe stress from drought conditions and were drier than kiln-dried lumber.

Robert M. Winston

Robert M. Winston, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a district fire chief in the Boston Fire Department with 31 years of structural and wildland fire experience. He is a Red Carded qualified Structure Protection Specialist and instructor for wildland/urban interface fire protection. Winston holds a degree in fire science and is a member of the National Fire Academy Alumni Association. He can be contacted via e-mail at dfcwins@adelphia.net or at 781-834-9413.