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.

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.

Ironically, it's the West that has most of the largest wildland fires and many of them were located on land owned by the federal or state government and were not protected by local fire departments as first responders.

And, in the Midwest, one of every five brush, grass or forest fire responses were handled by local fire departments.

The study also offers some analysis of the typical causes of the fires as a way to acknowledge how to prevent the fires.

The leading cause, according to the study: 20 percent intentional; 17 percent hot embers or ashes; 15 percent were outside fires for debris; 13 percent high winds; 12 percent smoking materials; 6 percent playing with heat source; 5 percent fireworks; 4 percent electrical power or utility lines; and 4 percent lightning.

Given the identified causes, prevention strategies are "relatively easy to identify," according to the report.

The NFPA offers a variety of solutions to reduce the number and the devastation caused by wildland fires -- most are common sense and have been drilled over and over, but it never hurts to review.

They include some obvious ones, including disposal of smoking material properly in fire-resistant containers and providing metal containers for cigarette disposal to prevent them from being thrown on the ground.

Campfires and bonfires must be completely out and fires of all kinds should be avoided during windy days.

The report recommends that fireworks be left to the professionals and matches and lighters must be kept away from kids.

NFPA, through the report, also acknowledges preventing deliberate, malicious brush, grass and wildland fires is far more challenging.

"When dealing with human beings, it is easier to say what should be done than to ensure that the procedures are always followed," the report reads.

To that end, the NFPA suggest the best offense is a good defense and the report offers a wide variety of ways to protect property from potential fire spread from a brush fire, grass or forest fire.

First on the list is the recommendation that the amount of fuel around a home be reduced and plants that burn particularly hot and fast should be kept away from structures.

Dead branches, leaves, brush and tree limbs hanging over a structure should be removed.

Use gravel, or other non-combustible material should be used next to structures rather than mulch or other organic material that can be flammable.

And, lastly, homes can be constructed of ignition –resistant material and fences decks and porches should be constructed so they don't carry fire to the main building.

"Most people have a long list of things to do around home and yard and not enough time to them in," the report reads. It goes on to say that eliminating vegetation around homes increases security and reduces the occurrence of carpenter ants and other pests.

"Being Firewise -- adhering to burn bans, knowing your community's risk for wildfire and reducing the available fuel around your home -- are the first steps to prevent losses from wildfire," Steinberg, NFPA's Firewise Communities program manager, said.

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The below table shows that nine of the largest fires in U.S. history were wildfires and eight of those occurred in the last two decades, as noted in the NFPA's "Brush, Grass and Forest Fires" report. The chart offers the original loss estimates adjusted for 2008 dollars to give a true perspective of the devastation.

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RankIncident LocationDateOriginal Loss 2008 Loss Value
1The World Trade Center NY, NY9/11/2001$33.4 bil$40.6 bil
2San Francisco Earthquake & FireSan Francisco, CA11/18/1906$350 mil$8.3 bil
3Great Chicago Fire Chicago, IL10/8-9/1871$168 mil$3.0 bil
4Oakland Fire Storm (wildland/urban interface)Oakland, CA10/20/1991$1.5 bil$2.4 bil
5Southern California FirestormSan Diego County, CA10/20/2007$1.5 bil$1.9 bil
6Great Boston FireBoston, MA11/9/1872$75 mil$1.3 bil
7Polyolefin PlantPasadena,TX10/23/1989$750 mil$1.3 bil
8"Cedar" Wildland FireJulian, CA10/25/2003$1.1 bil$1.2 bil
9

"Cerro Grande" Wildland Fire  wildland/urban interface

Los Alamos, NM5/4/2000$1 bil$1.2 bil
10Baltimore Conflagration Baltimore, MD2/7/1904$50 mil$1.2 bil
11"Old" Wildland FireSan Bernadino, CA10/25/2003$975 mil$1.1 bil
12Los Angeles Civil DisturbanceLos Angeles, CA4/29-5/1/92$567 mil$870 mil
13Power Plant (auto manufacturing complex)Dearborn, MI2/1/1999$650 mil$839 mil
14Southern California Nov. Wildfire Sacramento, CA11/13/2008$800 mil$800 mil
15Laguana Beach Fire - Wildland/urban interface Orange County, CA10/27/1993$528 mil$786 mil
16Textile MillMethuen, MA12/11/1995$500 mil$699 mil
17U.S.S. Lafayette (former S.S. Normandie ocean liner)New York, NY2/9/1942$53 mil$699 mil
18

S.S. Grandcamp &Chemical Company Plant

Texas City, TX4/16/1947$67 mil$646 mil
19Petroleum RefineryNorco, LA5/5/1988$330 mil$600 mil
20Cargo Plane - In-flightNear Newburgh, NY9/5/1996$395 mil$542 mil
21Great Fire of New YorkNew York, NY12/16/1835$26 mil$540 mil
22Wildland FiresFloridaMay, June 98$395 mil$520 mil
23One Meridian PlazaPhiladelphia, PA2/23/1991$325 mil$513 mil
24Forest Fire Cloquet, MN10/12/1918$35 mil$498 mil
25Apollo Spacecraft CabinCape Kennedy, FL1/27/1967$75 mil $483 mil

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