NFPA Looks at Burden of Wildfires on Fire Service

The U.S. fire service responds to nearly 1,000 brush, grass and forest fires every day, representing nearly a quarter of all calls reported to local fire departments.


The U.S. fire service responds to nearly 1,000 brush, grass and forest fires every day, representing nearly a quarter of all calls reported to local fire departments.

That statistic was noted in a report recently issued by the NFPA as the organization looked at the burden of vegetation and wildland fires on the fire service.

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Not only are brush fires among the most common fires fought by firefighters, they can often be the most costly.

The study sites the 25 most costly fires in the nation's history and of that list wildland fires occupy nine spots sharing top billing with the likes of the 9/11 at the top of the list with a cost of $40.6 billion which far out paces the second most costly disaster, which is the San Francisco earthquake and fire of April 18, 1906 at $8.3 billion, an amount adjust for inflation to 2008 dollars.

Coming in in the fourth spot the Oakland, Calif. Fire Storm of Oct. 20, 1991, a wildland/urban interface incident, with a price tag of $2.4 billion. All figures are adjusted for 2008 dollars.

While the big, spectacular fires capture the headlines and television news crews, eight which have been the most costly fires in U.S. history have happened in the last two decades, nearly three quarters of brush, grass and wildland fires are typically less than one acre, according to the NFPA. In fact, only 4 percent burned more than 10 acres, the resport says.

The 70-page report examines a four-year period from 2004 to 2008 . It was launched to examine the circumstances and causes of brush, grass, woods, forest and wildland fires, according to the NFPA.

What the study finds is the majority of the fires were caused by human activities and, most likely, could have been prevented. One of the major recommendations of the study if for more people to become involved prevention through programs like NFPA's Firewise Communities which is sponsored by the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Forest Service, the U.S. Department of the Interior and the National Association of State Foresters.

"Many of these fires could be prevented by following basic precautions," Marty Ahrens, manager of NPFA's Fire Analysis and Research and the author of the report, said. "Tossing cigarettes on the ground, burning trash and ignoring fire bans are a recipe for disaster, especially during long stretches of dry weather."

Data for the study was collected from the USFA, the National Fire Incident Reporting System (NFIRS) and NFPA's own annual fire department experience survey.

The data showed the nation's fire departments responded to an average of 356,800 natural vegetation fires per year, according to the report.

One in five of those fires were intentionally set, while the most common heat source, or point of ignition, was hot embers or ashes. And as one might guess, smoking materials, open burning and lightning were also cited as frequent causes, according to the report, which added high winds as a contributing factor for making the fires worse.

"Many of these fires are threatening private property and could be avoided," Michele Steinberg, manager of the NFPA Firewise Communities program, said. "Homes and other structures do not have to burn; this property does not have to be lost."

The report offers a treasure trove of interesting statics including the fact the area considered the South by the NFPA, from Florida to Texas to Pennsylvania in the north, has 54 percent of all brush, grass and forest fires. The area represents about a quarter of the land mass in the country, however, the report notes.

The smallest region, the northeast had the second highest rate per 1,000 square miles for total brush, grass and forest fires, and forest wood or wildland fires specifically, according to the report. The northeast was ranked third in the rate for grass fires.

Local fire departments in the West ranked third in the percentage of brush, grass and forest fires, but the region had the lowest rate of fires per 1,000 square miles of all the fire categories studied.

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