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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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.