Climate and homes factors in increasing wildfire deaths

Climate andhomes factors in increasing wildfire deaths

18 February 2007

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USA — The number of people killed fightingwildfires in the U.S. hit 24 last year — five of them a U.S. Forest Serviceengine crew overrun by flames as they tried to protect homes in SouthernCalifornia chaparral country.

The 2006 death toll is not an all-time high, but is part of a rising trend— double the number in 2005, and six more than the average of the past 10years. The 10-year average has been rising, too, from 6.6 in the 1930s to 18 inthe 2000s.

Experts warn that the size and intensity of wildfires is increasing due tolonger, hotter and drier summers and a buildup of fuel from trying to put outevery fire. As a result, wildland firefighters face greater dangers,particularly trying to protect the growing number of homes in the woods.

“More telling than anything is where the fires are,” said DickMangan, a retired U.S. Forest Service fire program leader at the agency’sTechnology and Development Center in Missoula, Mont., and author of a report onwildfire fatalities from 1990 to 2005.

“Many of them are in the area known as the Wildland UrbanInterface,” the zone of rural homes outside towns in the West, Mangan said.”The five guys who died on the Esperanza fire — if that had just been apure Southern California brush field, those guys never would have been wherethey were. But there were homes to be protected up there.”

Bill Gabberet, executive director of the International Association ofWildland Fire, noted research indicating climate change has made summers hotterand longer, drought has afflicted much of the West, and the old Forest Servicepolicy of trying to put out every fire by 10 a.m. has created a buildup of fuelsin forests.

Firefighters are increasingly being sent in close to fires — whatfirefighters call direct attack or working with one foot in the black — toprotect houses in the woods, he said.

Mangan added that firefighters have the experience and research to justifykeeping their distance from explosive fires, but when TV news shows air tankerson the ground and firefighters sitting on their engines while homes are burning,it creates “tremendous pressure” to attack a fire that would be leftto burn if no homes where involved.

Within hours of the Esperanza fire starting Oct. 26 outside Two Pines, Calif.— authorities have charged a man with murder for starting it — 50 mph windswere driving flames up to 90 feet high through dense chaparral, overrunning thecrew of San Bernardino National Forest Engine 57 as they tried to defend ahouse, according to a preliminary report by the California Department ofForestry and Fire Protection.

Results of a Forest Service investigation are not out yet.

“We are fighting fires in the wildland urban interface more frequentlybecause the wildland urban interface is growing,” said Mark Rey, U.S.undersecretary of Agriculture in charge of forest policy. “With 60 percentof new home construction nationwide being in the WUI, that’s 8.4 million homesfrom 1990 to the present. You take a household size of four people, you’ve movedthe equivalent of the population of California into the wildland urban interfacein the last 15 years.

“The good news,” Rey added, is that only 800 homes were lost lastyear, despite a record 1 billion acres burned, compared to 3,000 homes lost in2003, when 5 million acres burned.

Federal, state and local programs have focused on thinning forests,particularly those on the edge of cities and towns, but tens of millions ofacres remain to be treated.

Rey said he hopes local communities will impose zoning restrictions onbuilding homes in fire-prone forests, the way flood plains are regulated.

Until they do and thinning projects catch up with the fuel build-up, “Ithink on balance we are going to continue to see some more difficult fire years,”he said.

Meanwhile, Forest Service firefighting spending is skyrocketing — from $179million in 1997 to $1.5 billion in 2006.

The agency figures more than half that money goes to wildfires threateninghomes, according to a federal audit last year.

Fire spending, including prevention, amounted to 40 percent of the ForestService budget last year, and is projected to rise to 48 percent in 2008,prompting the agency to consider letting more fires burn rather than trying toput them all out.

Mangan noted that burnovers are not even the biggest category of firefighterdeaths. Since 1990 motor vehicle accidents, heart attacks — particularly amongaging volunteers — and aircraft crashes killed more.

The 2006 deaths included eight in aircraft crashes, seven from burnovers,four from motor vehicle accidents, three from heart attacks, one from a fallingtree and one who fell off a lookout tower.

It all goes back to trying to put out nearly every fire, rather than lettingmore burn, said Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees forEnvironmental Ethics.

“We’re sending more troops into these most dangerous fires, so of coursewe are going to lose more,” he said.

Kent Maxwell, a founder of Colorado Fire Camp in Salida, Colo., a nonprofitwildland firefighter school, said every time there is a major burnover, newsafety rules are imposed, yet fatality reports still cite firefighters’ failingto react to known dangers.

“Oftentimes firefighters, particularly during a long season, feel it’sjust another day on another fire,” Maxwell said.

Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety,Ethics and Ecology, said the number of safety guidelines firefighters must knowis up to 133.

“That’s just too much — sensory overload,” he said. “Most ofthe thrust in the safety programs falls on the shoulders of the ground-levelgrunts, but rarely are the policies that drive fire suppression in the firstplace addressed.”

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