Four days ago, 19 members of the Prescott (Ariz.) Fire Department died in Yarnell Hill Fire. The devastating loss follows other recent multiple-firefighter fatalities in Houston and West, Texas. Once again, the fire-service family will gather from across the U.S. to honor and bury the fallen. And once again, lessons will be learned and shared in the name of firefighters who were “just doing their job.”
Recently, members of the FIRE CHIEF staff participated in meetings with the International Association of Wildland Fire. (The IAWF’s Wildfire is a supplement to FIRE CHIEF.) During the meeting, IAWF President Dan Bailey provided us with an update on the wildland-fire problem based on a recent research report.
According to Bailey, 120 million people are living in 46 million homes across 70,000 U.S. communities at high risk for wildfires. In 2012, more than 67,000 fires raged in the western U.S., burning more than more than 9 million acres in Colorado alone. The report found there were 4,244 structures lost to the fires and 36 fatalities — 18 civilians, 18 first responders — with the cost of fighting fires estimated at $2.9 billion.
Wildfires are becoming more severe and more expensive for three reasons: fuel build-up, climate change and home development in the wildland-urban interface. Extreme heat, severe drought conditions and high-wind storms worsen the wildfire scenario. Those who build homes in the interface are designing increasingly larger homes in densely forested areas, expanding the wildland-urban interface.
“Many people living in WUI areas are not taking personal responsibility for their decision to call the WUI home,” Bailey said. “If we are to make progress, we have to focus on it. It not just a government problem — it is a shared problem that the homeowners have to engage in.”
Bailey also discussed the health impact of wildfire smoke on communities. He said that by the end of 2013, 60 million people will be affected by poor air quality, as smoke from wildfires can stretch for hundreds of miles.
In spite of national campaigns like Firewise Communities to raise awareness of WUI fire prevention, the need for WUI fire codes and federal funding to fight wildland fires has met with complacency. Perhaps the media attention on the deaths of the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots will call attention to the increasing risk of these wildfires.
“Wildland firefighting is a science, and it’s just like fire suppression in buildings,” Prescott Fire Chief Dan Fraijo said during the first news conference after the deaths of the 19Granite Mountain Hotshots.
For as long as I can remember, wildland firefighting was treated like a distant cousin to structure firefighting. It had different tools and equipment, apparatus and tactics that were a far cry from structural firefighting equipment and tactics. However, slowly the door of understanding has opened as rural and suburban fire departments are responding to house fires in wildland areas and wildland firefighters are encountering small mansions tucked in the forest.
There is much knowledge and experience to be learned from each other and from this tragedy. The entire FIRE CHIEF staff sends their thoughts and prayers to the families of the fallen and to the Prescott Fire Department.