The City of Boston is famous for is great historical heritage. It is also synonymous with a high population density, crowded narrow streets, monumental traffic jams, thousands of structures made of steel, masonry, or wood all squeezed into an area of about 52 square miles. This great city is also known for its waterfront, ethnic neighborhoods, a wide variety of excellent restaurants, the "Big Dig" and everything else that symbolizes what urban is. When Boston is mentioned in the company of firefighters, no matter where they are from, it is the Boston Fire Department's heralded reputation of excellence that is discussed. Numerous accounts of rescues and heroism, unmatched ladder work, leather helmets, traditions, big red (and thankfully red) fire apparatus, and big fires in big buildings all help to contribute to a well deserved repute.
What Boston is not notable for is its ample open space or wildlands and the fire problems associated therewith. Within its city limits, Boston contains an estimated 4,000 acres of wildlands in the form of parks, woods, grass and brush lands which also includes the harbor islands. Many wood framed homes and other structures are located in close proximity to these wildlands creating true structural wildland interzones within this highly urbanized city.
Photo Courtesy Bill Noonan
Historically, busy fire activity in these wildland and interzone areas has occurred in the spring when the standing and downed dead vegetation has been freeze-dried and cured out from the previous winter. If the summer has been very hot and dry, additional fire activity occurs. This may also transition into a dry and active fall fire season that usually terminates in early November. It is all weather dependant.
Most of these fires are kept to 1-acre or less in size. However, some fires can and do grow rapidly in size and complexity becoming a direct threat to firefighter and civilian life safety. Structures in close proximity to these fires are also threatened.
An initial response of apparatus to the report of a wildland fire in Boston is usually 1 or 2 engine companies and a District Fire Chief. The assignment can be upgraded by the IC to include additional engines, a full first alarm assignment of 3 engines, 2 ladder companies with a special request for a Brush Fire Unit(s) (BFU) or multiple alarms as conditions dictate.
How The Fires Were Fought
Photo Courtesy Bill Noonan
Past accounts show that Boston Firefighters fought wildland and SWI fires the best that they could with the structural firefighting equipment that they had. This included large fire apparatus that were not designed for off-road use, heavy-weight structural fire hose, shovels , brooms, back pack pumps, structural turn-outs and rubber boots. In the late 1920's/early 1930's, Boston Fire purchased 2 specially equipped motorcycle brush fire patrol units for use in the heavily wooded areas of the city's West Roxbury and Hyde Park sections. Reportedly, these motorcycle units were not very satisfactory and suddenly were put out of service and disappeared. it was recently rumored that a collector of old motorcycles, who lives in Germany, found and restored one of these Boston Fire Department motorcycle brush fire patrol units and added it to his collection.
During past busier spring fire seasons, many Boston residents knew that large stubborn wildland fires were burning because they could see large columns of smoke coming from wooded areas. The smell of burning vegetation permeated many neighborhoods for days and weeks at a time. Until the early 1970's, the burning of fall leaves by residents had been a permitted annual event. It was something akin to a rite of fall.