Learn from past wildfires to fight future blazes

Understanding the scope and costs of historic and recent wildfires is necessary to plan for future fire-suppression efforts

This feature is part of our new Fire Chief Digital Edition, a quarterly supplement to FireChief.com that brings a sharpened focus to some of the most challenging topics facing fire chiefs and fire service leaders everywhere. To read all of the articles included in the Spring 2017 issue, click here.

By Sarah Calams, FireRescue1 Associate Editor

If you've been paying attention to the news lately, then you've probably noticed an uptick in wildfire coverage.

But for those who fight wildland fires, this upward trend isn't new. Over the years, wildfires have continued to increase and intensify. Firefighters on the West Coast understand this struggle all too well, but wildfires aren't just isolated out west any longer.

This aerial photo shows burned homes in the Mountain Shadows residential area of Colorado Springs, Colo., that were destroyed by the Waldo Canyon wildfire.
This aerial photo shows burned homes in the Mountain Shadows residential area of Colorado Springs, Colo., that were destroyed by the Waldo Canyon wildfire. (AP Photo/John Wark)

That’s where fire departments in suburban and urban areas need to sit up and take notice of the growing threat of wildland urban interface fires this spike in wildland fires presents.

Most recently, thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed and 14 people were killed in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park wildfires in Gatlinburg, Tenn. North Carolina, Alabama, Kentucky and other Southern states have also seen fierce wildfires.

Internationally, Chilean firefighters battled the worst wildfires in that country’s history. More than 100 wildfires have destroyed entire towns, forests and livestock — and killed four firefighters.

With more wildfires continuing to spread across the United States, it's getting increasingly harder to identify fire seasons.

Wildfire history

Wildland firefighters in Southern California have always said they have a year-round fire season. Over the past several decades, large fires have occurred in every month of the year. In other parts of the western United States, the length of fire seasons has grown by a month or more.

Wildland fires are, of course, not a modern invention. British scientists discovered evidence that the first wildland fire happened 419 million years ago in the Welsh Borders — they speculate that oxygen levels were higher than now and a lighting strike may have set off a smoldering fire. It would take another 14 million years for fires to really kick off.

In the relatively modern-day United States, the first wildfire was recorded by Lewis and Clark in North Dakota in 1804. A prairie was set on fire and resulted in two deaths and three injuries.

In 1845, 1.5 million acres burned during the Great Fire in Oregon. In 1871, the worst recorded forest fire in North American history occurred in Wisconsin. The Peshtigo Fire burned over 1.2 million acres and killed an estimated 2,200 people. Coincidentally, the Great Chicago Fire occurred on the same day.

Fast-forward to the present and consider the number of major wildfires in the past decade. One of the largest fires in Oregon's history occurred in 2012, and 19 firefighters were killed during the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013. The Rim Fire, one of the largest fires in California's history, also happened in 2013.

Wildfire costs

While the number of acres destroyed has increased over the decades, the number of fires has decreased. Nonetheless, U.S. firefighting suppression costs are expected to rise.

In 1990, those suppression costs were almost $400 million, while in 2000 costs were a little under $1.5 billion. Likewise, in 2016 costs reached almost $2 billion, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

More than 10 million acres were scorched in 2015, while a little over 4 million acres were destroyed in 1990. As more acres burn and more human building reaches deeper into forested areas, the WUI threat rises.

Environmental factors

Bill Gabbert, who worked as a wildland firefighter in Southern California for 20 years and currently owns and manages WildfireToday.com, said one reason for the growth of wildfires is due to the more frequent occurrences of extreme weather.

According to Gabbert, extreme weather conditions, including drought and higher temperatures, can result in lower moisture content in vegetation.

"Firefighters call this 'fuel moisture,'" he said. "The less moisture there is in the live and dead fuel, the easier it is for fires to ignite and spread."

That ignition, according to the National Park Service, is almost always caused by humans. The agency says that humans have a hand in starting 90 percent of wildland fires in the United States.

Human-caused fires can result from campfires left unattended, negligently discarded cigarettes and acts of arson, the NPS reports.

As a result, Gabbert said he's skeptical of just naming weather as the main responsible factor in the number of fires and acres burned over the years.

"It is very difficult to say that one factor caused fire occurrence to change," he said.

Other factors to consider, Gabbert said, include the capacity to suppress wildfires, the fact that more people are living and reconstructing in the wildland-urban interface, changes in vegetation and how timber is managed, fuel treatments and changes in wildfire management policy.

Policy factors and budget constrictions

U.S. wildfire policy used to focus almost entirely on suppression. This has shifted in recent years.

From 2000 to 2016, the Journal of Forestry evaluated policy changes initiated at the national level, including reducing hazardous fuels, ecosystem restoration and community assistance.

"Although progress has been made, many obstacles remain if the United States is to move toward a more long-term, sustainable wildfire policy," according to the journal. "Suppression and hazardous fuels reduction receive greater attention and resources relative to ecosystem restoration and community assistance. This provides an incomplete solution to mitigating the long-term risk of wildfire, thereby running the risk of perpetuating it."

Additionally, pressure to keep costs low can cause both government and wildfire officials to be timid about ordering enough resources to be successful, Gabbert said.

"An example is the 2009 Station Fire north of Los Angeles, when an extremely conservative initial and extended attack came weeks after a memo was distributed — encouraging firefighters to spend less money on fires," he said.

Gabbert's prescription for keeping new fires from becoming megafires is a rapid initial attack with overwhelming force, using both ground and air resources, and arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible.

"It can be expensive to use a lot of resources on initial attack of a new fire, but paying for suppressing a megafire is much more so," he said. "And, of course, we can't put a dollar figure on the lives of firefighters and residents that may be lost when a small fire turns into a monster fire."

Future fires 

Regardless of policy or environmental factors, attempting to suppress all fires can lead up to a large buildup of fuel. Some experts even argue that firefighters need to allow fire to do its natural job of managing the environment and forests.

And that brings us back to WUI fires. More often than not, wildland fires occur in areas where lives and private property are threatened. As a result, most of the fires must be put out as soon as possible.

Other fires, such as those that start from lightning in remote or wilderness areas and under certain predetermined conditions can be managed as opposed to being immediately and totally suppressed, Gabbert said.

"But this is extremely difficult to pull off successfully," he said. "For several years, I worked on an incident management team that was organized solely to manage fires like this."

Gabbert explained that the team allowed fires to spread across the landscape in certain areas and during conditions where they decided it wouldn't pose a threat to humans. They put out other sections of the same fire if they concluded it would become a problem.

"If fires like this start in the middle of the summer fire season and planners expect to allow them to do their thing until a season-ending event, such as heavy rain or snow, that can be very risky," Gabbert said. "All it takes is one wind event, a few hours of strong winds, to spread the fire far outside the maximum planned perimeter and beyond the capabilities of the firefighting resources to stop."

Therefore, trying to containfires this way is dangerous.

"If a team of very smart, very experienced fire managers is lucky, they can often be successful," Gabbert said. "Others who may try need an extraordinary amount of luck."

Three things are certain, no matter what kind of crystal ball you're looking into: The fire service will see more wildfires, these fires will become larger, and they will be more difficult and expensive to suppress if climatologists' forecasts are correct. And all of those forces will be pushing into WUI areas.

Learning from the scope and cost of past wildfires is mandatory in order to plan for fire suppression in the coming years and decades.

Sarah Calams is the associate editor of FireRescue1 and Fire Chief.

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