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 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!

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."

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).

Chief Mike Long, Southern States Forest Fire Chiefs' Association: "SSFCA is concerned with the increasing incidents of arson by both paid and volunteer firefighters, the severity of budget cuts and the trend toward private contracting (for firefighters). Long suggests more marketing (i.e., writing articles) to promote the (fire) organizations and its members. SSFCA lists many of its accomplishments...organizing, training, equipping rural fire departments, ICS and programs for wildland/urban interface mitigation and cost sharing."

Bill Sommers, past chair, Nation-al Wildfire Coordinating Group: He is concerned with "the lack of funding for the wildland fire infrastructure ...Future goals include developing new technology and partnerships with the structural fire community."

John Chambers, U.S. Forest Service, Fire & Aviation assistant director: "Don't plan on additional funding...In 1996, we (were) at 88 percent of full strength (personnel), versus the 100 percent needed to accomplish objectives with the most efficient levels. In 1997, the U.S. Forest Service will be at 80 percent of full strength and the ceiling on full-time personnel is set."

C. Allen Jeffrey, director, Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center: "Canada's timber-related economy employs 20 million people and generates $40 billion annually. However, wildfires claim four times the amount of Canadian timber than the country's logging industry harvests. In terms of wildland fire fatalities, in the last decade, Canada experienced 27 deaths, the last four occurred in 1995...Personally speaking, I am more pessimistic today than ever before. I want to add the word 'capsizing' to the current buzzwords of 'downsizing' and 'rightsizing' to represent the loss of expertise and experience in wildland firefighting. After decades of buildup, the current trend of not replacing people or equipment has left many (fire) agencies simply trying to survive."

John Goodman, John Goodman and Associates Ltd: "Wildland fire managers are at a crossroads...The trend of agency downsizing equates to the elimination of skilled planning and suppression personnel through early retirements. It also represents a major erosion of base-level preparedness funding. Increasingly, fire system components (firefighting agencies) will be privatized. I feel that the situation has reached crisis proportions. If we are to deal with our problems, we must streamline, change, be cost-effective, partner, defend our positions and utilize technology. Shortsighted political decisions are now emerging as multimillion-dollar emergency suppression expenditures."

FYI Future articles being planned for the SWI column are about the California Department of Forestry (CDF), California's Office of Emergency Services (OES), the Colorado Wildland Fire Conference, the 50th anniversary of the "Great Fires of Maine" in 1947, structure triage in the SWI and Boston's new brush fire units.

FYI The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) has eliminated the position of wildland/ urban interface liaison and has no Wildland-Urban Fire Committee. The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) has no person or committee dedicated to the SWI fire challenge.

Question: The wildland fire suppression agencies are downsizing and reducing personnel and equipment. Who and what are going to be used to fill the fire suppression vacuum that will be left? Answer: The structural fire services' personnel and equipment. Privatized fire organizations are apparently already filling some of that vacuum.

I wonder whether the IAFC and IAFF know what is happening relative to the SWI fire challenge. The wake-up call is sounding. The structural fire services need to get serious about SWI and be ready to safely and effectively fill the need. If not, someone else will surely fill it

Robert M. Winston, a FirehouseĀ® contributing editor, is a district chief in the Boston Fire Department.