Wildland/Urban Interface Preparedness In The Northwest And The Northeast

July 1, 2000
Early wildland fire and wildland/urban interface (W/UI) fire season predictions for the year 2000 were ominous and warned of an active and possibly disastrous period in this country's fire history annals. There was talk of droughts and global warming. Scattered locations throughout the country were experiencing an early spate of fires and the average numbers were already well beyond the normal statistics of past years.
Photo by Robert M. Winston This home became a total loss during a wildland/urban interface (W/UI) fire in Massachusetts.

As of mid-spring, wildland fire agency officials were reportedly having difficulties filling wildland firefighter positions in areas of the country where traditionally this was not a problem. This situation was due in part to high rates of retirements of experienced fire personnel; budget cutting; more lucrative and less dangerous alternative employment opportunities; and the difficulties of passing the physical testing known as the "Pack Test."

The question of just how well prepared wildland fire agencies and structural fire agencies were to handle this year's fire season was a matter of concern among some, if not many, of the nation's fire managers. And naturally, the weather is always a major deciding factor in any fire season's outcome.

However, many wildland fire agencies and some structural fire services that frequently respond to wildland and W/UI fires were preparing for the inevitable battles that were sure to come during this fire season. Private firefighting contractors were equally hard at work in preparation to meet the coming demands of fire suppression this year.

The Northwest

The Washington/Oregon Interface Qualifications System (WOIQS)

In the Northwest, as in much of the U.S., a severe wildfire season can become almost routine, depending on drought severity and the weather. Rural developmental growth has caused structural fire services to become directly involved with wildland and W/UI fires in a large way.

Photo by Robert M. Winston This Plymouth, MA, fire crew operates its tanker (tender)/pumper to provide structural protection. The fire is approaching from the rear and this home was successfully protected.

In recognizing these problems and after the serious fire season of 1994, regulatory bodies in both states began to address the minimum standards for structural firefighters involved in interface fire incidents. An interstate work group was established to develop a plan of action. It needed to recognize the role of the interface firefighter. This was accomplished through a job task analysis from basic firefighter up to division supervisor. The WOIQS was the tool required to accomplish the goals and objectives.

Excerpts of the system overview of the WOIQS: Fire personnel from different agencies will operate together more safely and effectively on interface fire incidents. Qualifications are specific to training, demonstrated skills, and knowledge and experience. The WOIQS is designed to provide both structural and wildland firefighters common ground for measuring experiences and training as it pertains to Interface fire protection. The WOIQS draws upon the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) training courses and Task Book requirements for additional qualifications for engine officer, task force/strike team leader, and division/group supervisor.

Initial implementation of the WOIQS will require a historical recognition process designed to credit prior training and experience, or grandfathering. This gives firefighters a strong base to become certified interface firefighters because of years of experience and training. This requires an application process for recognition, evaluation and documentation.

The different levels are firefighter, company officer, strike team/task force leader, structure protection specialist, division supervisor and general staff. Each level consists of training courses that fit the specific position.

Photo by Robert M. Winston Firefighters from Cape Cod, MA, attack a large wildland fire.

For complete information on this outstanding and innovative program contact: Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, 550 N. Monmouth Ave., Monmouth, OR 97361. Telephone 503-378-2100. Assistant Director Erik J. Gabliks may be contacted at 503-378-2100, ext. 255

The Northeast

The Eastern Area Coordination Center (EACC)

This large land area of our country contains not only highly urbanized and densely populated centers, but boasts large areas of vegetated lands that include a mix of grasses, brush, and hardwood and softwood forests. Serious wildland and W/UI fires are a part of the fire history of the Northeast. The threat of major fire events is ever present during the annual wildland fire season.

H. Alan Zents is a veteran employee of the U.S.D.A. Forest Service and is the W/UI, Prescribed Fire & Fire Behavior program coordinator at the recently activated Eastern Area Coordination Center in Fort Snelling, MN. I posed a number of questions to him and the following are his excellent and informative replies.

Please describe the new wildland/urban interface program for the northeast region in which you are the lead person.

The impact of severe wildland fires on communities, states and the federal government across the United States is staggering. Since 1970, approximately $20 billion has been expended nationally in fighting fire from the fringes of our burgeoning population centers to remote rural areas. It is that geographic area that has come to be recognized as the wildland/urban interface.

Photo by Robert M. Winston These cross-trained and cross-equipped firefighters are ready for W/UI fires in the western U.S.

The movement of people from city dwellings to residences in the wildland setting or on the fringe of urban areas reflects a national trend. For many, a home in rural America, far from the busy and frantic lifestyle so common within major population centers, is a dream come true. The natural setting of the wildland affords an opportunity for an attractive lifestyle with homes built primarily for aesthetic values and economic considerations more often than not without regard to fire protection. These homes, placed in rural wildland settings in which fire is a natural part of the ecosystem, have proven to be at risk.

The northeastern area, which is comprised of the 20 Northeast and Midwest states, is an area prone to wildfire, experiencing approximately 25,000 fires per year. It is an area that often hosts hot, dry and windy weather conditions each year providing an increasingly high potential for wildland fire danger to those who have chosen to build and live in the wildland setting or on the fringe of urban areas. The Stephan Bridge Fire in Michigan in 1991 is one example of the destructive nature of fire within the wildland urban interface. This fire consumed 191 homes and destroyed 6,000 acres.

A more recent reminder to us is the devastating wildfires that occurred in Florida in 1998. These fires destroyed several hundred homes and brought sorrow and frustration to many homeowners and businesses. Other familiar names remind one of the risk of homes to fire in the wildland urban interface: Mack Lake Fire, Colorado, 25,000 acres and 44 homes lost; Black Tiger Fire, Boulder, CO, 2,100 acres and 44 homes; Paint Fire, Santa Barbara, CA, 4,900 acres and 471 homes and structures destroyed, one person killed.

Modern technology has helped make firefighting very efficient, keeping natural, low-intensity fires to a minimum. The absence of natural fire over time has resulted in heavy accumulations of trees and vegetation in many areas and now poses a serious wildland fire threat to life and property and to other natural resources. including water quality, wildlife habitat and air quality. The wildland/urban interface issue can be expected to become more intense and complex in the future.

Photo by Robert M. Winston This Class A foam strike team prepares structures and vegetation before a wildland fire arrives.

The U.S.D.A. Forest Service, in cooperation with the Northeastern Association of State Foresters, Northeast Forest Fire Supervisors, National Fire Protection Association, National Wildfire Coordinating Group, as well as other federal, state and local government partners, are working to address the wildland/urban interface issue.

It is our intention to mitigate the challenges posed by the wildland/urban interface by focusing on public education, training for wildland and structural fire agencies, training for local government and community leaders, technology transfer, planning, conducting fire protection assessments, fire analysis, developing partnerships and targeting selected geographic areas for implementation of special wildland urban interface pilot projects.

What are the goals and the objectives of this program?

We envision a fire protection community united with a common vision proactive in response to the needs within the wildland urban interface. This unification should reflect a seamless fire protection partnership working under a common order of business and command, adopting and applying leading edge technology within the wildland/urban interface. This partnership should facilitate the ability to share responsibility and the ability to work and train together with common goals and understanding of the immediacy of the situation.

We envision a public sensitized to the risk posed by the wildland/urban interface and having a fire protection ethic deeply ingrained as part of their value system. We also foresee a public that will demand responsible community planning, use of fire-resistant building materials, proactive fire protection service, application of defensible space/firewise landscaping and accountability in community leadership for "Fire Safe Living."

Will the structural fire services be a part of the process and, if so, in what capacity?

Photo by Robert M. Winston The Boston Fire Department's two brushfire trucks are each equipped with 500-gallon tanks, pump-and-roll capability and Class A foam systems and are ready for W/UI fires.

Fire protection in the wildland/urban interface is not the responsibility of any one agency. Every fire affects numerous organizations and most cases the entire community. When wildland/urban interface fires occur, community services become strained; natural resources, homes and precious family possessions are destroyed; and jobs, civic pride and even lives can be lost.

The structural fire service is and has been a full partner in the process of dealing with the wildland/urban interface issue. The structural fire service has a very strong presence and influence on the wildland/urban interface issue as members of a number of national organizations such as the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG), U.S. Fire Administration (USFA), International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC).

How, in your opinion, can the structural fire services in the northeastern area be better prepared to deal with wildland and W/UI fires?

In my opinion, the structural fire service in the northeastern area can be better prepared to deal with wildland and wildland/urban interface fires. A number of opportunities come to mind that would help facilitate this:

  • Through better and more comprehensive wildland fire training that meet NWCG standards. In many states throughout the northeastern area, structural firefighters receive as little as two hours of natural-cover fire suppression training through state or local government fire training academies. More emphasis needs to or should be placed on wildland firefighter safety, fire behavior and fire suppression tactics within the W/UI.
  • By developing closer/stronger working relationships with federal and state wildland fire agencies.
  • Through more interaction with local government and community associations planning commissions.
  • By providing lightweight wildland fire personal protective equipment (PPE) to structural firefighters for use when engaged in wildland fire suppression operations.
  • By enhancing rural water supply and delivery capabilities.

Tell us about the new EACC and how it will help deal with fires and other disasters.

The EACC serves federal and state wildland fire agencies within the 20-state Eastern Area (EA). The EACC provides logistical support, resources, and intelligence for anticipated and ongoing wildland fire activity. The EACC facilitates the movement of resources (people, aircraft and ground equipment) among member agencies and their individual units. EACC monitors wildfire potential, weather and wildland fire use with the EA. EACC also responds to requests for support to other geographic areas from the National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC) at Boise, ID.

EACC was initially established to support wildfire suppression efforts. However, today, the EACC plays an additional role, by providing logistical support and facilitating emergency response to other natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, etc., nationally and internationally as well. When the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is activated for wildfire emergency response, Emergency Support Function 4 requests are processed by EACC. (Emergency Support Function 4 is fire suppression and is handled by the U.S.D.A. Forest Service.)

EACC supports the wildland fire community through training, workshops, special projects and tasks assigned by the Eastern Area Coordinating Group (EACG). For more information visit the website at http://www.fs.fed.us/r9/fire/.

Robert M. Winston, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a district fire chief in the Boston Fire Department with extensive experience and training in wildland and SWI protection. Questions and comments may be sent to him via e-mail at [email protected]

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