- November 30, 2014
- Posted by: Kevin O'Connor
- Category: Blog
Editor’s note: As announced last month, we welcome Kevin O’Connor, Assistant to the General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), and Chief Shane Ray, Executive Vice President of the National Fire Sprinkler Association, as our new alternating Fire Politics columnists.
Most of us in the fire service generically, and incorrectly, use the term “wildland fire” to describe blazes in our forests and on nearby lands. But there is a fundamental difference between a fire deep in a forest and a raging inferno imperiling lives and property.
As people have fled our cities seeking their Shangri-La closer to nature, communities have sprung up in what is termed the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). Today, most of the damaging, destructive and deadly fires that most term “wildland” are really in the WUI. They are not traditional wildfires. They are Urban Interface fires.
This means we must adjust our nomenclature, thinking, strategies and tactics to combat these incidents in a way that more closely resembles an urban conflagration than a forest fire. The National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) reports that fire destroyed 300 homes in less than six hours at Waldo Canyon. And at the Witch Creek Fire, a home was ignited every three minutes. The statistics also reveal that 60% of homes that were defended were saved.
That data indicates that on Urban Interface fires, our response profile and engagement needs to be immediate and measured in terms of minutes, like a structure fire, rather than the traditional model for wildland fires, which are viewed as operations that can last for several weeks and require extended periods to establish command and plan operations.
Climatologists can opine on the reasons, but every firefighter knows the fire season is longer, that there are more fires and that they are more intense. From 2011 to 2013, 189,479 wildfires burned over 22 million acres. The annual cost of fire suppression for just the Departments of Agriculture and Interior averaged in excess of $1.8 billion annually. Over 50% of the U.S. Forest Service’s annual budget is consumed in fighting fires. Those statistics do not include the costs to state and municipal governments.
Urban Interface fires have claimed 34,000 homes and killed more than 300 civilians and firefighters, including our 19 brothers lost in the tragic Yarnell Hill Fire. The most sobering statistic is that only 17% of the WUI area has been developed so the threat will increase exponentially. This is the beginning of what could be a national crisis, but the government’s response has been tepid at best.
In the early 1970s, major cities faced a blight of arson and fire deaths. President Richard Nixon empaneled a diverse, broad-based commission of experts to analyze the issues and make recommendations. The landmark 1973 report America Burning offered a global prism through which all parties could view fire and life safety issues. The legacy of America Burning includes the establishment of the U.S. Fire Administration, National Fire Academy, National Fire Incident Reporting System and National Bureau of Standards. Most importantly, it made architects consider fire safety in their building designs.
To plan and prepare for Urban Interface fires, buildings need to be hardened, communities need to be designed and built to meet the real fire challenge and codes need to be updated and adapted. Since America Burning, exhaustive studies on fire behavior, incident command and response for structural firefighting have been conducted. Other research has chronicled the health and mortality impact on firefighters. Similar efforts and investments need to be made for our wildland colleagues.
On the federal level, turf battles, culture and interagency bureaucracy stifle global solutions. The administration boasts about the cohesive strategy, plans to budget more appropriately and the National Wildfire Coordinating Group and multi-agency cooperation. But where is the mandate or forum to bring in all stakeholders – community planners, builders, architects, code enforcement officials, elected officials and state and local fire service leaders to really analyze this issue in totality and make recommendations for the next generation as America Burning did in the 1970s?
The U.S. Forest Service, the federal lead in the phalanx of the multiple agencies charged with wildfire responsibilities, doesn’t even have the classification of firefighter in job descriptions. The director of Fire and Aviation Management, the nation’s second-largest fire department, does not even merit his own office. More troubling, the feds routinely bypass nearby state and municipal units which have faster response times. Why? Your guess is as good as mine.
In any event, it’s hard to see the federal government adequately addressing this issue. To solve a problem one must define it. President Obama should appoint a commission similar to America Burning to define and address this life-safety issue.
The role of the fire service needs to be elevated in the federal structure. Currently, wildland firefighters are orphans in multiple agencies. A single wildland fire agency should be established so that fire service professionals actually determine policy or, at least, make recommendations without buffers to the President – similar to the FEMA director. At minimum, the director of FEMA should be elevated to the same level as the chief forester within Agriculture.
In sum, the federal government must view the Urban Interface fire problem with the same deference that it has for response for other natural disasters or terrorism.
Unfortunately, while America burns, Washington fiddles.
Climatologists can opine on the reasons, but every firefighter knows the fire season is longer, that there are more fires and that they are more intense.