Fire Season '97

Last year's very busy wildland fire season is now a part of fire service history. The brutal winter of 1996-97 has brought us other forms of natural disasters in the form of record-breaking cold, Siberia-like blizzards that crippled portions of the...


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Last year's very busy wildland fire season is now a part of fire service history. The brutal winter of 1996-97 has brought us other forms of natural disasters in the form of record-breaking cold, Siberia-like blizzards that crippled portions of the country and monsoon-like rains that saturated and flooded the West Coast. Wildland fire crews were busy making water rescues, evacuating residents and filling sandbags. They were fighting torrents of water, not walls of fire!

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Photo courtesy of Chief Neil Honeycutt/California OES
Members of the California Office of Emergency Services (OES) Fire and Rescue Branch coordinate non-emergency events during floods that occurred in January 1997.

As you read this month's column, Fire Season '97 has begun. We wonder what this year's season will be like and how what occurred last year may affect structural and wildland firefighters this year. The following contains points of interest "for your information" FYI that may answer those questions or raise new ones.

FYI The National Fire Academy's proposed curriculum to teach the structural firefighter about fire suppression in the structural wildland interzone (SWI) is still in the development stage. Budget cuts and scheduling have slowed the progress of this important teaching program. We hope that the program will be completed and offered to the structural fire services this year.

FYI A small group of wildland firefighters is developing a new type of personal fire shelter that reportedly affords vastly superior protection from flames and heat over the currently used fire shelter developed by the U.S. Forest Service. The fire shelter now in use has saved many firefighters' lives at "blow-ups" or while being overrun by fires. How-ever, at the Storm King Mountain "blow-up" in Colorado, 14 firefighters died (see "The South Canyon Fire," July 1995). Some of the deployed fire shelters failed to provide adequate protection due to extreme heat and direct flame impingement. Hence, the need for a better fire shelter.

FYI In May 1996, at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) annual meeting in Boston, the Wildland Fire Management Section held a "Roundtable II" discussion on the state of wildland (and SWI) fire protection in the United States and Canada. Discussing the issues were 18 top-level structural and wildland fire service leaders. The following are excerpts and quotes from the official report of this discussion.

Executive Summary: "The effects of organizational downsizing...on federal, state and private lands were recurring topics at the Roundtable II. According to Fire Chief David Abernathy, the section's vice chair, wildland fire personnel across the board were concerned about having less organization available to manage and protect resources and to educate the public. U.S. and Canadian fire personnel feared downsizing was jeopardizing fireline and management expertise and their ability to inform the public particularly in the wildland/urban interface."

Jack Sargent, past chair, Nation-al Association of State Foresters: "The State Foresters' concerns include the wildland/urban interface and declining numbers of volunteer firefighters. In 1972, the nation's cooperative fire programs were funded at $32 million. Today, they are allotted $17 million. In 1975, the rural Community Fire Protection Program was allocated $7.5 million. Today, that amount has fallen to $2 million...volunteer fire departments are losing 2 to 3 percent of their members each year."

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Photo courtesy of Chief Neil Honeycutt/California OES
Monsoon-like rains that saturated and flooded the West Coast were among the major weather disasters of the winter of 1996-97.

Thomas G. Bourn, chair, Northeast Forest Fire Supervisors: "The NFFS' concerns focus on fire readiness in an area of the U.S. that contains 44 percent of the country's population but experiences infrequent, severe fire events. With the last large fire occurring on Long Island, NY, 53 years earlier, state and local fire agencies were not prepared to handle a major fire event (in 1995)" (see "Long Island Wildfires, June 1996).

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