1997 Fire Season Wrap-Up And Some Random Comments

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...


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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.