1997 Fire Season Wrap-Up And Some Random Comments

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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.

It appears that the SWI fire problems will never be completely resolved. The fire services are resigned to doing the best they can with what they've got in the face of the raw power of nature, which is wildfire consuming everything in its path. The annual battles between firefighters and flames are valiant efforts, becoming herculean and heroic. Sometimes, they become deadly tragedies.

For every big wildfire that becomes "newsworthy," however, there have been hundreds of other fires that have been kept relatively small and obscure by firefighters doing what they do best.

Downsizing. Both the structural/municipal and the wildland fire services have been and are still in the process of personnel and equipment reductions. According to U.S. Forest Service officials, the Forest Service will be at 80% of its optimum personnel strength levels in 1997. And that ceiling level will be met.

Who will fill the created void for SWI fire suppression? Probably the local fire services. But are these structural firefighters cross-trained and cross-equipped for SWI firefighting? Private contractual fire suppression corporations are expanding and filling the voids. When the fires get big enough and the normal levels of available firefighters are drawn down to almost zero, the military is called upon for bodies to do the "grunt work." A suggestion has been made to cross-train and cross-equip our 27 Urban Search And Rescue (USAR) task forces for SWI firefighting The idea has merit.

Funding. This goes hand-in-hand with the downsizing issue. Funding should never be cut for the fire services. Law enforcement does receive the lion's share of public safety funds. That's because of the "firestorm" of violence and lawlessness that is so pervasive in the country. The government officials who control public safety funds seem to forget that fires and real firestorms occur frequently in this country. How is it that they forget the billions of dollars in fire losses, the fire deaths to civilians and firefighters, and the loss to the environment? Why do members of our Congress pass a Fire Mobilization Act for $70 million and then not fund that act that they just passed? It boggles the mind!

The National Fire Academy has had the opportunity to complete the badly needed curriculum to train the structural fire services for SWI fire suppression. The project was begun two years ago and has not been completed because of a lack of adequate funding.

Politics. As in any organization, politics plays an important role. The fire services contain an abundance of politics, both good and not so good. The not-so-good politics i.e., turf battles, personality clashes, and petty and professional jealousies throw marbles under the feet of progress. We need to work together. Structural and the wildland fire agencies must pull in the same direction. Much has been accomplished in this area. More has to be.

An excellent example of such interagency cooperation occurred at last year's annual Colorado Wildland Fire Conference in Lakewood. That conference brought together many of the agencies that deal with SWI challenges. A highly successful conference, it was held again this Sept. 26-28.

Complacency. We in the fire services realize that the general public can be complacent and apathetic about fire safety and SWI issues. They want to build right into the forests, being as close to nature as is possible. And don't you dare cut that tree or trim back that brush! Well, the public really needs to be educated about SWI fire prevention.

Are the fire services and auxiliary organizations complacent and apathetic about the SWI fire issues too? Are they being a little reactive instead of being very proactive about SWI issues? Do more big fires, more large losses and more fire deaths have to occur to allow the SWI issues to become as important as the "politically correct" issues and other "hot buttons" that dominate the fire service conferences and the industry publications?

The annual International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) conference did not have any presentations about SWI issues. The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) isn't dealing with SWI issues. The Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) had a one-hour presentation about SWI this year.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) still has its Wildland Fire Management Section. This section, however, has paled over the years and has not become "The Voice of Wildland Fire," as it was intended to be.

The future. Destructive SWI fires will occur again and again. The fire services will rise to the challenge. Funding will come, albeit slowly. A broader national fire mobilization system hopefully will be developed. And the sooner the better. Research and development of better firefighting tools, equipment and protective clothing designed for SWI will continue. Class A foam use will increase.

Through education, the general public, home building developers and municipal planners must take SWI issues into consideration. And last, but certainly not least, the insurance industry must join to make the structural wildland interzone a safer place to live in harmony with nature.

El Nino Predictions

The phenomenon known as El Nino is an abnormal warming of a large area of the Pacific Ocean that creates unusual weather patterns that can and do affect the weather in many countries, including the United States. Areas in our country that are normally dry and warm can become very wet and cool. Other areas that are wet and cool can become abnormally dry and warm. But, there have been variations in these weather patterns as well. No hard and fast rules can apply to any predictions when it involves normal weather, let alone abnormal weather patterns caused by phenomenons such as El Nino.

The National Weather Service has made some weather predictions based on the El Nino phenomenon. It is predicting that this winter season will bring unusually wet and cooler weather conditions to the lower half of the country, including the western and southern states. The northern tier of states will experience a drier and milder winter than is normally experienced. This includes the middle Atlantic states and New England.

What does this mean in terms of predicting what the 1998 fire season will be like? If the National Weather Service predictions hold fast, there will be an abundance of vegetation growth in the western and southern states. Once this "fuel" cures and dries during next spring and summer (if those seasons are hot and dry), it could mean a very busy fire year for the West and South.

If the northern tier of states remain dry and mild this winter and experience a dry, warm spring, this could lead to a transition into a very busy fire season for the East, North and mid-Atlantic regions.

Predictions. Phenomenon. The "X-Files!" Anybody got a crystal ball? Maybe we should just keep our fingers crossed? The obvious answer is in a word ... PREPAREDNESS.

FIREFIGHTER FATALITIES AT 1997 WILDFIRES

DATE LOCATION TYPE OF ACCIDENT ORGANIZATION FATALITIES
April 20 Blair County, PA Aircraft State/contract 2
May 9 Macon County, GA Snag State 1
May 29 Fillbrook Fire, CA Heat stroke State 2
June 3 San Carlos, AZ Aircraft Federal/contract 1
July 6 Hemlock Fire, CA Helicopter Federal/contract 1
July 14 Estero, FL Heat/heart attack Contract 1
Aug. 5 Eagle Lack, CA Vehicle Federal 1

Source: National Wildlife Coordinating Group/Safety & Health Working Team

Just a word of thanks and a "tip of the helmet" to the faithful readers of the Structural Wildland Interzone column and Firehouse Magazine. To you and to yours, have a happy holiday, a Merry Christmas and a safe 1998! (A special thank you to Lorraine Buck of the External Affairs Office, National Interagency Fire Center, in Boise, ID, for her assistance with this column.)


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.

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