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The 1997 wildland and structural wildland interzone (SWI) fire season has been an unusually tranquil one in the lower 48 states. Fire incidents have been sporadic and small to medium in size when compared to previous active years.
A wet-weather pattern with monsoon-like moisture flows persisted during the usually dry and hot summer months throughout the West, Southwest and Deep South. Alaska, however, experienced many large-acreage fires that were extinguished when rains finally fell in mid-August.
Southern California experienced significant fire activity during the period from August through late October, when this column was written. Large fires occurred in the Los Pardes, Sequoia and Angles national forests as well as on other state and private lands. Numerous structures were either damaged or destroyed by these SWI fires.
A drought condition developed in the East during the summer months and it continued into the fall months. The usually busy spring fire season started off with a series of wildland and SWI fires in late March. This came to an abrupt end when the record-setting April 1 blizzard buried portions of the New England states with two to three feet of heavy, wet snow. The combined weight of this snow and ice along with high winds created widespread damage to all of the affected forests in New England. Millions of trees and tree limbs were toppled to the ground, littering forests with "fuel for future fires."
As the summer's drought continued in the East, wildland and SWI fires began to ignite. In July, New Jersey experienced more than 370 fires burning over 3,600 acres. A fire in the Pine Barrens area of the state on July 19 burned 800 acres, damaged 52 homes and caused the evacuation of 2,000 residents. On July 29, some 1,900 acres burned in the Wharton State Forest.
In Massachusetts, fires were also burning during the drought. In and around the Boston area, numerous wildland and SWI fires burned hundreds of acres, created visibility and air quality problems, and burned at least two homes in separate incidents. Many other fires burned across the state, threatening scores of homes. In Lynn, MA, a large tree that was burned through at its roots silently fell onto a district fire chief's car, crushing its trunk. A firefighter who was sitting inside the car narrowly missed serious injury or death only because he had driven the car forward a few feet just seconds before the tree fell on it.
As of Oct. 21, nine firefighter fatalities were associated with wildland fires in 1997 (see chart on page 116). As of Oct. 21, 1997, the number of reported fires in the United States totaled 61,200 (keep in mind that many other fires are not reported to the National Interagency Fire Center or to local or state agencies for tabulation). The areas that were burned in the lower 48 states totaled 897,714 acres; in Alaska, the fires covered 1,910,357 acres.
Issues In The SWI Fire Arena
What's in a name? I call it the structural wildland interzone, or SWI for short. Most of the fire services, structural and wildland, know it as the wildland/urban interface or, simply, as the interface. It's called by many other variations across our country and in other countries.
Whatever you call it, it is where vegetation meets or mixes with structures. Firefighters, structural and/or wildland types, must perform their primary functions of fire suppression and protecting lives, property and our environment in this "zone."
The issues. SWI has been with people since they have been here. Native American populations knew how to live safely in the SWI. Early settlers did not and they paid the price for their ignorance, many times over. Despite all of the warnings and the media coverage of SWI fires, the people of today are still paying the price of their ignorance about living safely in the structural wildland interzone.