The Structural/Wildland Interzone Fire Challenge Facing The United States

Robert M. Winston, an SWI Fire Specialist, is interviewed by Editor-in-Chief Harvey Eisner on the SWI challenge firefighters face in the United States.


Robert M. Winston, a Firehouse ® contributing editor, is a district chief in the Boston Fire Department. He is the author of the magazine's Structural/Wildland Interzone column and has 28 years' experience in structural and wildland firefighting. Winston served many years on NFPA and IAFC SWI fire...


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Robert M. Winston, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a district chief in the Boston Fire Department. He is the author of the magazine's Structural/Wildland Interzone column and has 28 years' experience in structural and wildland firefighting. Winston served many years on NFPA and IAFC SWI fire committees as a Structural/Wildland Interzone Fire Specialist. He was interviewed by Firehouse® Editor-in-Chief Harvey Eisner.

Firehouse: Describe the structural/wildland interzone (SWI), also known as the wildland urban interface, fire problem in the United States.

Winston: This fire problem, or fire challenge, as I like to call it, is more widespread than is realized. Only when these fires become "newsworthy" does the public become aware that there may be a fire threat in their own backyards. As structures are built close to and into grass, brush and trees, the more this fire threat will escalate. Despite a heightened awareness of the SWI fire challenge and preventative measures by fire service authorities, this dangerous fire threat continues to expand.

Firehouse: How much of the United States is affected by the SWI fire challenge?

Winston: Any area that has a mix of vegetation and structures can be susceptible to SWI fires. Depending on vegetation types, fire weather ex-tremes and past fire occurrence history, even the most unlikely locations could experience a surprisingly destructive SWI fire event. We are talking about nearly every state, including Alaska and Hawaii, based on written records back to the 1600s.

Firehouse: Describe the different firefighting problems encountered in the different areas of the U.S.

Winston: The fire suppression problems encountered are as diverse as is the diversity of vegetation, topography and fire weather conditions in a given geographical location. Fire suppression techniques and equipment should be designed to effectively fight fire in the given region. For example,: in the Pine Barrens areas of the East Coast, the uniquely designed brush breakers and stumpjumpers are used to fight fire; in the Southeast, bulldozers pulling plows are used to dig lengthy, wide fire breaks around wildland fires. This technique is also used in the Southwest, West and Midwest where terrain allows. Air tankers are used extensively and with increasing frequency in many areas of the country. Mountainous terrain and remote areas require the use of air tankers, helicopters and the elite Smoke-jumpers to fight fire.

Firehouse: Is there a specific wildland fire season?

Winston: The wildland fire season is cyclical and totally weather driven. Normally speaking, the fires begin in the winter months in areas like Texas to Florida; travel up the eastern/mid-Atlantic states to New England in the spring; move across the country to the Midwest and finally reach the Northwest and West during the hot, dry summer months. Depending on weather conditions and Santa Ana Winds, southern California can experience huge SWI fires through the end of November.

Firehouse: Is California unique in its capacity to defend itself from wildland and SWI fires?

Winston: The California fire services are blessed with an outstanding fire defense system created in response to a severe wildland and SWI fire threat. This system includes FIRESCOPE, an acronym for Firefighting Resources of Southern California Organized for Potential Emergencies. Out of FIRESCOPE came the incident command system and the multi-agency command system. The state developed a mutual aid system that can notify and deploy hundreds of pieces of firefighting apparatus, support units and aircraft, and thousands of structural and wildland firefighters to one location or to numerous locations. Local, regional, state and federal firefighters are trained and readily available.

Firehouse: California's wildlands are fire prone. Why? What other areas have this type of fire problem?

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