The Structural/Wildland Interzone Fire Challenge Facing 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?

Winston: I'm no expert on vegetation but I have learned that the types of vegetation in central to southern California are very combustible under certain conditions. Some fuel types that proliferate in the dry "Mediterranean" climate of southern California are chaparral, chamise and manzanita as well as date palm trees. The often hot, dry climate in concert with winds blowing out of the desert southwest into California, create explosive fire weather conditions after robbing these plants of moisture. Similar vegetation also grows in Spain, Portugal, southern France and in certain areas of Australia, creating dangerous wildland and SWI fire events.

Firehouse: What is "prescribed burning" and what is its purpose?

Winston: "Controlled application of fire to wildland fuels ... under specified environmental conditions which allow the fire to be confined to a predetermined area ... to attain planned resource management objectives." (from Firefighter's Handbook on Wildland Firefighting by William C. Teie, Deer Valley Press, 1994). Its purpose is simply to reduce fuel loading that could be easier to control in case of fire.

Firehouse: What are some of the dangers of a fire burning uphill and firefighters working above that fire?

Winston: Whether firefighting in a structural or a wildland incident with the fire below you, the behavior of fire and heat transfer still apply. Heat, flame and smoke generally rise rapidly with the only exceptions being a down-slope wind in hilly terrain or the downward movement of products of combustion in a high-rise building due to internal and external environmental conditions.

Working above a fire is extremely hazardous. Two years ago, 14 wildland firefighters died while cutting a fireline on Storm King Mountain with fire below them. One of the "18 Situations that Shout WATCH OUT" for wildland firefighting operations is, "You're building (cutting) a fireline downhill with fire below."

Firehouse: What is the so-called "Let Burn" policy?

Winston: This issue has been around the wildland agencies for a long time. It became very public during the Yellowstone fires of 1988. There are differing thoughts about the policy. Some want to fight/suppress all fires, while others wish to let nature take her course and let all naturally occurring fires burn unless there is a threat to lives or property. Fire ecologists support prescribed burning and prescribed natural fire as a method of achieving fire safety and healthy wildland and forest ecosystems. It does stand to reason that if our forests are healthy and not choked with scrub brush, dead standing and dead-down vegetation, due to fire's cleansing ability, then the "Let Burn" policy should be accepted.

Firehouse: What are the uses of aircraft during wildland/SWI fires?

Winston: They are an essential element during operations. Spotters for safety and coordination. They are the eyes in the sky for the incident commander. Helicopters are classified into four types depending on their load-carrying capacities; i.e., from type I, carrying 16 passengers and 700 gallons of retardant/water, down to a type IV, carrying three or four passengers and up to 99 gallons of retardant/water. Helos are used for liquid drops, reconnaissance, transport and medivac. Air tankers are classified into four types depending on their load-carrying capacity; i.e., from type I, carrying 3,000 gallons or more, down to type IV, 100-599 gallons.

Fire suppressant is a chemical mixture with water applied to the flames and suppresses fire by cooling or smothering. Water and Class A foam are in this class. Retardants reduce or slow combustion. They are produced by mixing water, several chemicals and a coloring agent. The main chemical ingredient is a fertilizer. The coloring agent is used to show the pilot where the last drop was made (from Firefighter's Handbook on Wildland Firefighting).

Firehouse: What are some new technologies used to fight the fires?

Winston: Computers are being used extensively. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are being used to map geographic areas providing information about roads, types of vegetation, fuel loading, jurisdictional ownerships, population numbers, fire protection features and fire risk analysis, etc. Global Positioning Systems are being introduced that will be able to track firefighters and fire apparatus while enroute and at a fire scene. Infrared scanning from aircraft and satellites can map where a fire has been and where it is.

Advances in weather/fire weather forecasting and radio communications continue. Several new NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) standards have been introduced that target wildland firefighter personnel protective clothing, firefighter qualifications and designing wildland fire apparatus. The U.S. Forest Service, other fire agencies and private contractors are in constant research and development of new weapons to fight fire safer and more efficiently.

Firehouse: How extensively is Class A foam being used?

Winston: Class A foam has been used for wildland, structural and wildland/urban interface fire protection and suppression for many years. Its use has grown dramatically during the last few years and this trend continues. Class A foam is used as either compressed air foam systems (CAFS), proportioning systems (measured) or mixed directly into booster tanks (batch mixing). Class A foam is also used extensively in air tankers and helicopters. The wildland firefighting agencies under the U.S. Department of Agriculture are approaching 100 percent installation on their brush engines. Many other fire services in the West and across the U.S.A. are going to Class A foam operations.

Firehouse: Are structural firefighters involved with wildland fires?

Winston: Yes but not as much as they could or should be. I believe that a great deal of wildland firefighting is done by the rural to semi-rural and suburban volunteer firefighters. I have heard that some volunteers and career firefighters travel out West to the big fires during the summer, report to a base camp or command post and go to work. There are also a number of private contractors that are put to work on these fires. Those people are usually firefighters staffing task forces or strike teams of brush engines and/or water tankers/tenders that are privately owned.

Federal wildland firefighting agencies are reducing in size and staff. Structural firefighters, whether career or volunteer, are going to be called upon with increasing frequency to fight these wildland and SWI fires all across the country and not just in the West. The structural fire services really need to take a close look at this and prepare, train and equip their people for wildfires. Even the big cities, where a lot of resources are located, should be involved. The National Fire Academy is developing a program designed to teach the structural firefighter, officer and chief officer how to safely and effectively handle wildland and SWI fires.

Firehouse: Should a national mutual aid program be developed?

Winston: I've been talking about this type of a program for years. Federal authorities working with local, regional and state fire services could develop such a system staffed with trained personnel, lists of inventoried fire apparatus and a call-up preparedness plan in place.

Firehouse: Can you provide a progress report on the Super Scooper air tanker that the Los Angeles County Fire Department was testing?

Winston: According to L.A. County's public information officer, Captain Steve Valenzuela, "The Super Scoopers were tested for a two-year period and found to be a useful firefighting tool and are added to initial attack responses along with ground forces. This is our third year of use. The costs for the leasing of two aircraft is $1.2 million for a 60-day period of Oct. 14 to Dec. 14. Because of unusually dry fire weather conditions and some early-season fires, we leased the aircraft for an additional 38 days at about $500,000 more. We operate a Canad-air CL-215T, which carries 1,410 gallons of water, and a CL-415T, which carries 1,620 gallons of water. They can also carry Class A foam."

Firehouse: Where do the resources come from to fight these fires and how are they dispatched?

Winston: The firefighters are a mix of federal, state, local, wildland, some structural, career, seasonal, call and volunteers. When resources are depleted, the military is called upon to supply people, vehicles, supplies and transport. Fire caches are strategically located throughout the country, especially in the West. These facilities contain large amounts of firefighting tools and related equipment to sustain and maintain firefighters and their operations camps.

Dispatching of firefighters and equipment begins at the local level, escalates to one or more of 11 federal regional dispatch centers and can further escalate to the National Interagency Communications (Fire) Center in Boise, ID. Fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft are located at air tanker bases where fire retardants and suppressants are stored, mixed and pumped into the air tankers.

Firehouse: Why is this fire season worse than others?

Winston: NIFC Public Information Officer Andy Williams said, "This has been a busy fire season, yes, but when one looks at the past historical accounts of fire losses, it hasn't been that bad. Fuel buildups and dry, hot and windy weather play a large role. Lightning also accounts for many fires. In 1910, 78 wildland firefighters were killed at one big fire at Coeur d'Alene, ID. In 1924, 28.8 million acres were burned, and in 1925, another 26.5 million acres were lost to fires. So, you see, it is all relative."

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