2002 Wildland Fire Season

Robert M. Winston provides a recap of the busy 2002 wildland fire season and a preview of what firefighters might be facing in 2003.


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...


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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