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.

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.


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.


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

"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

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