Protecting Human Life During Wildland Fire Operations

Protecting Human Life During Wildland Fire Operations

16 July 2008

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USA — On July 7, the death toll to our nation’s wildland firefighters reached that of last year’s entire wildfire season. In 2007, a total of nine firefighters died in the line of duty. Even with our rigorous training and safety standards, nine have already died this year and it is still early in the 2008 wildfire season. As the District Manager of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Idaho Falls District, I want to share my perspective on how all of us can prevent fire and help make firefighting efforts safer for everyone.

In my position, I am responsible for a wildfire management organization of 250 fireline-qualified men and women. An important point to keep in mind is that protection of human life is always my number one priority, followed by the protection of property and critical natural resources, such as sage-grouse habitat.

Central and eastern Idaho interagency wildland firefighters respond to approximately 230 wildfires per year. In nearly one-half of instances, it is an avoidable human act of carelessness that causes the wildfire blazes and puts our firefighters and others in dangerous situations. I challenge each and every citizen to be especially cautious with fire this summer. Preventing wildfire is the very best way to ensure the safety of our firefighters and our citizens.

Let me also encourage you to get involved and assist your local community. You can help by clarifying and refining your community’s priorities for protection of life, property and critical infrastructure in the Wildland Urban Interface. If you live near public lands, create survivable space. You can also volunteer with your local fire department or participate with your county officials when they are planning community wildfire protection. Citizen input is desired and invaluable.

My staff of land managers and 250 professional firefighters, along with the cooperating ranching community throughout central and eastern Idaho, all share a common interest in ensuring a safe and effective firefighting operation, particularly where fire crosses public and private land boundaries.

In a number of cases, a fire has been kept small or put out by ranchers, farmers or other local citizens who are working on the scene before any fire department or wildfire crews arrive. If you are responding to a fire, I simply ask that you stop and coordinate with any of the crews when they get there. Once communication is established, both parties can work together to coordinate resources and create an efficient and safe fire suppression plan.

While we want to prevent careless human-caused wildland fires, they should not be confused with spring/fall prescribed burns or those we sometimes employ as a management tool for ecosystem enhancement. Due to the decline in health of sage-grouse habitat and the potential listing of the bird as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, my fuels and fire program managers and staff have dedicated additional effort in prioritizing project work based on the most current field data collections and mapping images. Our fire management plans are guided by sage-grouse habitat restoration and are reflected in our on-the-ground efforts.

Be aware that when BLM firefighters are managing any fire – a wildfire, a prescribed fire or a fire for ecosystem enhancement – they are legally accountable and responsible for everyone working on the incident, including citizens.

Nine people this year will not be going home to their families and friends. Let’s keep these fallen heroes – and those lost in previous years – in our hearts as we tackle another long, difficult wildfire season across central and eastern Idaho and across our nation. As we do this, let’s do everything we can to help prevent wildland fires and protect our public lands and resources.

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