Firefighting on the new frontier

Firefighting on the new frontier

20 November 2007

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USA — Steve Pyne calls it “The Great Barbecue,” a time when it seemed as if the United States itself was on fire.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Debbie Clevenger, right, and Paul Hartman of the Arrowbear Fire Dept. fight a house fire ignited by the Slide wildfire in Arrowbear, Calif.For many, the term could easily apply to recent times. According to national statistics, this year marks the third in a row that more than 8 million acres of land has been burned by wildfires, with ten of the worst fire years in post World War II history being recorded since 1995.

However, Pyne’s “barbecue” actually refers to the late 1800s, a time when the effects of unchecked land clearing and agricultural encroachment prompted by huge population expansion reached their peak. And with the United States “recolonizing” its once-rural countryside, as Pyne puts it, a new fire frontier is being created that mirrors the old.

“You look back at the history of settlement in the United States, the process of agricultural conversion and land clearing that gave rise to a whole wave of immense, damaging fires,” Pyne said. “What occurs to me is that we are repeating that experience, but instead of the agricultural frontier, it’s the urban frontier.”

Pyne is well positioned to speak on the subject. Not only did he spend 15 summers as a wildland firefighter in the Grand Canyon from the early 1970s, he’s also a world renowned fire scholar/historian, with a string of books to his name, including 2006’s The Still Burning Bush and 2004’s Tending Fire: Coping with America’s Wildland Fires.

“I was trained as a historian but spent all those years in wildland firefighting,” he said. “They were two separate worlds, but I decided why not treat fire with the kind of scholarly understanding I have been trained in as a historian?”

Review ordered
In the wake of the sprawling SoCal blazes last month, the most high profile of this season’s wildfires, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered a review of California’s response.

AP Photo/Denis Poroy
Rae Woods wipes her eye as she and her family look through the remains of their home, destroyed by an October 2007 wildfire in Poway, Calif.He asked an investigatory task force to study not only whether the state had enough fire engines and personnel to coordinate its response, but also to look at whether it should allow homes and businesses to be built in areas most prone to wildfires, according to the Associated Press.

Pyne said many lessons can be learned from the devastating fires of the 19th century.

“One of the things we can learn from the past is that just denouncing people who live or develop in these areas and ridiculing them doesn’t work,” he said. “What does work is going out there and helping them do the right things to protect themselves, rather than just condemning it.”

Pyne said there are a range of technical solutions that can be put in place to better combat the hazards on the new frontier, such as simply protecting houses better.

“We have known combustible roofs are a hazard to man for more than 10,000 years,” he said. “We can change these things.”

He suggested a few basic measures, including:

• Banning wood-shingle roofs

• Focusing more attention to simple yard maintenance around structures

• Installing hydrants

• The application of basic codes for construction and zoning.

It is equally as important to carefully consider the actual firefighting approach in these wildland-urban interfaces, according to Pyne, a professor in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University.

In many ways, these areas are still considered a part or variation of wildland firefighting, when in fact they should be treated as a subspecies of urban firefighting, he said.

“Wildland firefighting is a very different methodology to the urban fire service,” Pyne said. “They’ve been forced to come together because we have created an environment that bridges them, and I believe that the urban firefighting side will eventually take things over”

Learn from others
The United States can also learn from other countries that have had to deal with fires in the wildland-urban interface in recent times.

As the height of the SoCal blazes, more than 800,000 people were reported to have fled their homes in the largest evacuation in California history.

Mass evacuation orders were also commonplace in Australia, until the Ash Wednesday fires, a series of forest fires that occurred Feb. 16, 1983, claimed more than 70 lives and destroyed more than 2,000 homes.  

Nowadays, Pyne said, Australian homeowners are taught to stay and fight wildfires, not flee from them.

“They train them in a standard course, like you would do a first-aid course, that says if you want to stay and defend your home, here’s what you can do,” Pyne said “They have a saying: ‘People save houses, houses save people.'”

The shift in philosophy largely came from the fact many of the deaths during Ash Wednesday came as residents stood between the flames and their homes, victims of last-minute evacuations.  

Australians are now taught that if they leave, they leave early, and if they stay, they know the measures needed to protect themselves and their home, according to Pyne.

“The worst place to be in a wildfire is standing between the flames and your house, assuming that the house offers basic protection,” Pyne said. “By coming out after the front has passed, you can protect the house from the flames and embers which often destroy the house.”

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