MISSOULIAN EDITORIAL: Wildfire fatality risk partly due to risk-taking homeowners

MISSOULIAN EDITORIAL: Wildfire fatality risk partly due to risk-taking homeowners

29 December 2013

published by www.missoulian.com

USA — It seems we keep making the same mistakes from one wildfire season to the next.

Today, the Missoulian concludes a week-long series of news articles examining wildland firefighter fatalities in the West. The fact that there have been so many tragic deaths – enough to make up an entire series – is telling. The fact that such deaths have become nearly predictable is sobering.

Each year, as the forests of the west erupt in flames, firefighters are sent out to the front line do protect lives and property. And each year, more homes are erected in the wildland-urban interface, meaning more property is put at risk of burning in a wildfire.

Despite the best efforts of fire mitigation experts and programs, too many new neighborhoods are still springing up too close to fire-prone forests, and too many of the homes in these neighborhoods lack even the most basic fire protections.

And so, as the number of fires and the number of acres burned increases, the costs of firefighting rise – along with the costs of fire-damaged property.

And lives are lost.

Just last summer, the Black Forest wildfire set a new record for destruction in Colorado. It burned nearly 500 homes. It burned for about nine days and charred some 14,000 acres. Thirteen thousand people were evacuated to avoid it. But two people were killed.

A little more than a week after the Black Forest wildfire was contained, the Yarnell Hill wildfire sprang up on June 28 in Arizona. While comparatively smaller than the Colorado fire, it too set a record in its state – for being the most deadly. Two days after the Yarnell Hill wildfire was sparked by lightning, 19 firefighters died after they left a safe area that had already burned, only to be trapped in a box canyon and overrun by fire.

At least, that’s what the investigation report pieced together after the accident. The Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health subsequently slapped the Arizona Forestry Division with citations and fines of nearly $560,000 after concluding that the agency had placed more importance on the protection of property than on the safety of its firefighters.

The reaction from such agencies after each fatality has become almost routine as well: calls for more training.

All firefighters receive some degree of training, although a growing number of people agree that better wildfire behavior and safety training could be provided – in particular, to contract workers and to officials higher up the chain of command.

The firefighters who fought the Yarnell Hill wildfire were reportedly well-trained. They were members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an interagency crew with the Prescott Fire Department. Yet the investigation report lists a worrisome number of missing pieces: The hotshots were not provided with maps; there was no safety officer available; the hotshots didn’t establish escape routes, identify safety zones or keep a lookout; and they didn’t tell superiors when they moved into the canyon.

Unfortunately, the report doesn’t explain what caused these egregious oversights. And similar slip-ups seem to attend every wildfire fatality.

But that’s only a part of what tips the odds against firefighter safety. Another is the fact that the risk wouldn’t be nearly as great if so many homes were not built deep within fire-prone forests – or if more homeowners would at least take steps to make their properties more fire-resistant.

Such costly lessons. Have we learned them yet?

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