2002 Wildland Fire Season

Driven by widespread drought and fueled by forests and brush-lands that were and still are choked with overgrowth of "biomass" (small trees and brush), the 2002 wildland fire season in the United States was the second-busiest encountered within the last 50 years.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
The Rodeo/Chediski Fire jumps Arizona Highway 260 between Show Low and Heber in June.

At the end of 2002, it was reported that 73,423 wildland fires burned 7,182,979 acres, nearly double the 10-year average. Approximately 3,000 homes, businesses and other structures were destroyed and many others sustained varying degrees of fire damage. An undetermined number of motor vehicles and many miles of fencing and other infrastructures were also damaged or destroyed. Scores of communities were evacuated and thousands of residents were forced to leave homes, businesses, pets and livestock as the fires advanced.

The final dollar losses and fire suppression costs totals have not been added up as of this writing. Undoubtedly, it will be well above the billion-dollar mark. This also was the year of "mega timber fires" that resulted in monetary losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars to the timber industries. Forest product jobs were also lost to these timber fires. The exact dollar and emotional losses may never be fully documented.

Line-Of-Duty Deaths

Line-of-duty deaths during 2002 wildland and wildland/urban interface (W/UI) fires were also at high levels. Twenty-one structural and wildland firefighters lost their lives, many as a result of aviation accidents.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
A massive cloud of smoke towers above the base fire camp at Show Low High School during the Rodeo Fire.

The states of Arizona, Colorado and Oregon experienced their largest recorded wildland and W/UI fires during the last century:

  • Arizona - The Rodeo/Chediski Fire consumed over 469,000 acres and destroyed 467 homes, businesses and other structures. Two people caused this fire. One was a seasonal wildland firefighter who wanted to be put to work to earn money (the Rodeo Fire). The other person became lost in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest for several days and out of desperation at not being found, she lit a signal fire to alert a news reporter in a helicopter covering the Rodeo Fire. This signal fire was successful in alerting the news chopper, but it also started the Chediski Fire. Both fires eventually merged into one monster blaze.
  • Colorado - The Hayman Fire, which destroyed 137,760 acres and 599 homes and outbuildings, was ignited by a U.S.D.A. Forest Service employee and became the largest wildland and W/UI fire in that state's history with hundreds of structures lost.
  • Oregon - The Biscuit Fire burned over 499,570 acres, yet destroyed only 13 structures.

The Good News

There were some positive sides of an otherwise grim wildland fire season.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
A wood-construction home is fully involved during the Indian Creek Fire in Prescott, AZ, in June.

Reportedly, only 609 of the fires "escaped" to become large (measuring 100 acres or more) fires. Structural and wildland firefighters were successful in protecting 98% of all threatened structures in the W/UI zones. Firefighters, operating under the incident command system and using aggressive tactics and strategies, protected over 110,000 structures that were threatened by large fires.

Through the National Fire Plan (NFP), large amounts of additional funding have become available to purchase additional fire equipment, engines, build new fire stations, and hire and train additional firefighters. Fuel reduction and fire prevention education will also receive an infusion of funds. Also, to assist with fire prevention, 31 national wildland fire prevention and education teams were sent to fire-prone locations.

The national level of preparedness rose to its highest level, level 5, at the National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC), and remained at that level for a record-setting 62 days. By early July, 28,000 firefighters and support personnel were assigned to firefighting activities. The military was called in to aid with eight C-130 cargo planes that were converted to Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems (MAFFS). An Army battalion of 600 troops was sent to Oregon to assist at the Monument Fire.

Photo by Robert M. Winston
Structural and wildland firefighters prepare to protect the home to the right as the Indian Creek Fire ignites trees around the structure.

In early August, the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) requested international aid from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and American Samoa. Canada responded with 40 Type 1 crews and 117 mid-level fire managers. New Zealand and Australia sent 50 fire line and aviation managers to Oregon.

The busiest day of the wildfire season was July 31, when 148 new fires were reported. Thirty-one large fires were burning across the country. Deployed and operating resources included 28,000 firefighters and support personnel, 1,205 engines, numerous water tenders/tankers, 30 air tankers, 188 helicopters and one Army battalion of 600 personnel.

Related Developments

The wildfire season was marked by four significant non-fire events that will affect fire management for years to come.

  • A Wildland Fire Leadership Council was formed to coordinate and implement wildland fire policies among federal, state, county and tribal agencies.
  • On May 23, the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, along with the Western Governors Association, signed the 10-Year Implementation Plan.
  • On Aug. 8, a formal agreement was signed to allow the exchange of firefighting personnel between the U.S. and Australia and New Zealand.
  • On Aug. 22, President George W. Bush announced the Healthy Forest Initiative to expedite federal and local efforts to restore forests health through active land management efforts such as thinning of small trees and brush (biomass) and where appropriate the use of prescribed fire.

Looking Ahead

Photo by Robert M. Winston
A home becomes heavily involved in fire as a result of the Indian Creek Fire, which destroyed five homes and several outbuildings.

What will the 2003 wildland fire season mean in terms of fire activity? Here is what the meteorologists are saying: "The nation will experience the effects of a revived El Nino, the temperature engine in the tropical Pacific Ocean which affects weather patterns across the globe."

The fall outlook in the West is for continued dry weather for the Pacific Northwest. The desert Southwest and southern California will be warmer than normal. The winter outlook includes below-normal rain and snow from the Northwest to the western Dakotas. Temperatures will be above normal across the northern tier and in the southeastern Alaska.

My thanks to Janelle Smith, fire information officer at NIFC, Boise, ID, for her assistance with this article.

California 7,505 491,025
Georgia 7,164 159,940
Arizona 2,840 650,456
Colorado 2,091 503,166
Minnesota 1,997 62,883
New Mexico 1,882 325,458
Idaho 1,423 78,268
Montana 1,390 117,804
Nevada 729 85,364
Alaska 547 2,267,380

Source: National Interagency Fire Center

Annual Inaugural Arizona Wildfire Academy

March 11-16, 2003
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Prescott, AZ

Photo by Robert M. Winston
A firefighter has just completed structure preparation and covered the roof with Class A foam during a wildland fire near Helena, MT.

The Arizona Wildfire Academy (AWA) will offer a "fire camp" atmosphere and it will be operated as a fire incident. The AWA is sponsored through the cooperative efforts of three state agencies, five federal wildland agencies, and the Central Yavapai Fire District, Prescott Fire Department and the Summit Fire District. And, firefighter attendees are not limited to Arizona - all firefighters are welcome, no matter what state they are from.

There will be 16 courses offered ranging from Basic Wildland Firefighter; Advanced Wildland Firefighter; Fire Operations in the W/UI; Crew & Engine Boss; Air Operations and Wildland Foam Tactics.

Hotel/motel lodging is available as well as campsite facilities for tents at the Embry-Riddle University. RV camping is also available at nearby Willow Lake RV Park.

To register contact:

  • Arizona Wildfire Academy
    P.O Box 2554
    Kori C. Kirkpatrick-Coordinator
    Prescott, AZ 86302

For additional information contact:

  • Fire Chief Don Howard
    Summit Fire District
    8905 N. Koch Field Road
    Flagstaff, AZ 86004

Robert M.Winston

Robert M. Winston, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 33-year veteran of the fire service and a retired Boston Fire Department district fire chief. He is a wildland/urban interface and structural fire service presenter and adjunct college instructor. Winston can be contacted at 928-541-9215 or e-mail: dfcwinsret@commspeed.net.