Wildland Fire Season 2001 Recap

The 2001 wildland fire season started off with Florida burning at a fast clip with over 400,000 acres scorched. It looked as though the Sunshine State's skies would be filled with smoke right through the spring and into summer. Fortunately, the rains came and soaked the state and the wildland fires stopped.

Spring brought the usual spate of fires to the Middle Atlantic States and on up to the Northeast and the Midwest. The spring fires were short-lived and spring rains brought a rapid green-up. Most of the western states' fire season laid dormant a bit longer than in other years, with the exceptions being Nevada, Oregon and Washington State. Those three states accounted for nearly 1.2 million acres burned, out of the over 3.2 million acres burned nationwide. After a late start, the western states' fire season quickly escalated as a result of a series of dry-lightning storms in the Pacific Northwest, the Great Basin and other areas. From Aug. 13 to 15, a total of 1,038 new fires were reported throughout the West. The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) Preparedness Level went from a modest Level 2 to the highest Level 5 in only eight days.

The fires died down in the West during the early fall. Dry, warm and windy late-fall conditions set the stage for an unusually busy second fire season from the Northeast down to Georgia and back across to the Midwest. The Southeast was hard hit by a series of fires started by debris burning and by arsonists. Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia were especially active with arson-caused wildland fires. A Tennessee wildland firefighter suffered a line-of-duty death when he and a small crew were overrun by fire.

Line-Of-Duty Deaths

The line-of-duty deaths of 17 wildland firefighters marred the 2001 wildland fire season. Two firefighters died as result of taking the required physical endurance tests; two died as a result of motor vehicle accidents; five died as a result of being overrun by fire; six died in aircraft accidents; one collapsed and died on the fire line; and one died when a snag (burned tree) fell on him at a fire scene.

The effectiveness of the aluminized "fire shelters" that can be deployed by firefighters as a last resort before being overrun by wildland fire have been scrutinized as never before because of the line-of-duty deaths of four firefighters in Wenatchee, WA, and because of other recent past fatalities where "fire shelters" were deployed. The federal government has indicated that a new more fire-resistive "fire shelter" will be issued to wildland firefighters in time for the 2003 wildland fire season.

In Memoriam

  • Jan. 12 - W. L. Thompson, 21, Hillsboro, KY (motor vehicle accident).
  • Feb. 6 - Mary Lynn Waite, 49, Meadville, MS, (heart attack at walk test).
  • March 17 - Jay Shaffer, 47, Larkspor, CO (heart attack at pack test).
  • June 18 - Jeremy Chandler, 27, Grant County, WA, Fire District 5 (collapsed at fire).
  • July 10 - Devin A. Weaver, 21; Jessica L. Johnson, age 19; Karen L. Fitzpatrick, 18; and Tom L. Craven, 30, all of Wenachee, WA, U.S.D.A. Forest Service (overrun by fire).
  • July 10 - Doug Gilbert, 52, Idaho Department of Lands, pilot (aircraft accident).
  • Aug. 27 - Lars Stratte, 45, and Larry Groff, 55, California Department of Forestry, pilots (aircraft accident).
  • Aug. 31 - Kip Krigbaum, 45; Rich Hernandez, 37; and Santi Arouitx, 28, Gallatin National Forest, U.S.D.A. Forest Service (helicopter accident).
  • Sept. 3 - David Ray-Rendek, 24, Bitteroot National Forest, Montana (falling tree).
  • Nov. 10 - Harold Strode, 46, Tennessee Division of Forestry (overrun by fire).
  • Nov. 19 - Clifford White Jr., 21, Cameron, WV (motor vehicle accident).

National Fire Plan

As a result of past recent disastrous wildland fire seasons, a National Fire Plan was implemented. Wildland fire agencies have never been better prepared for fire seasons as they now are as a result of the National Fire Plan. The plan has caused an increase in funding for firefighters, equipment, aircraft and other essentials.

According to NIFC, there were 83,996 reported wildland fires in the United States in 2001, consuming 3,570,225 acres. Separately, the National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC) reported that the costs for wildland fire suppression in 2000 in the U.S. totaled $1,362,363,000 (the 2001 total is expected to be available later this year.) The 2001 wildland fire season was about half as active as the previous year's due to abundant rain in many areas of the country and wildland fire agencies were better prepared to attack and suppress wildland fires.

Only time and the whims of global weather patterns will determine wildland fire activity and the NIFC National Preparedness Level for fire season 2002.

Firefighters are urged to get trained, in shape and equipped for this year's coming fire season. And, above all else, be very careful out there. It can get very dangerous very quickly.

Robert M. Winston, a Firehouse® contributing editor, recently retired as a district fire chief in the Boston Fire Department with 32 years of structural and wildland fire experience. He is a Red Carded qualified Structure Protection Specialist and instructor for wildland/urban interface fire protection, and is a member of the Prescott, AZ, Wildland/Urban Interface Fire Commission. Winston holds a degree in fire science and is a member of the National Fire Academy Alumni Association. He can be contacted at dfcwins@commspeed.net or at 781-834-9413.