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Managing fire: The only option in the era of mega-fires

Understanding how we got here and why we must focus on managing fire and sheltering-in-place


In this Nov. 26, 2019, file photo a firefighter prepares to battle the Cave Fire as it flares up along Highway 154 in the Los Padres National Forest, above Santa Barbara, Calif.

AP Photo/Noah Berger, File

The duration of the wildfire season lengthens. Drought and hotter temperatures dry out wildland fuels.

A fire is sparked in dry fuels on a windy day. The ensuing fire quickly grows and spreads. The wind picks up and brands spread, starting many spot fires. Dead trees and dried out vegetation add to the fuel load.

Before firefighters can establish control, a large-scale wildfire takes hold as the spot fires merge. Under the worst conditions, several large fires join to form a complex.

At various times and places, but especially in western North America, Australia and the Mediterranean region, mega-fires push firefighters to their limits. In the Western United States, years of aggressive fire suppression in wildland areas has resulted in high fuel loads. Under different conditions, this might not have been so bad; however, with hotter temperatures, drought and extension of development into once-rural land, we have volatile conditions in a high-risk situation.

Flawed forest policy

In the early 1900s, Americas forest management policy placed emphasis on fire suppression. Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service in 1905, initiated a policy of removal of fire from forests as a necessary precursor to managing forest reserves. Pinchots academic training as a forester followed the European tradition that stressed quick suppression of all wildfires. Unlike America, though, Europe lacked a history of light-burning of forests and fields for hunting and agriculture, resulting in their lack of experience in with wildfires in warmer climates, like that of the Western United States.

In the 1930s, the USFS came under pressure to accept light-burning” (i.e., deliberate firing) to benefit wildlife and facilitate land development. However, a few very large Western fires only hardened the USFS view. The director at that time doubled-down and instituted the 10 a.m. policy,” ordering that every fire should be suppressed by 10 a.m. the day following the initial report of a fire. The decision to fight all wildfires thus interrupted the natural progression of biology and physics that contribute to healthy wildlands.

The mega-fires of today are a direct result of the misguided forest policy initiated in 1905.

A firefighting army and managing fire”

Because of this policy, the USFS developed into a highly professional, trained, organized and well-equipped firefighting force. Its leadership in pushing advancements in forest fire control deserve recognition. It turned wildland firefighting into a science. And in 1960, the USFS was praised as a model of organizational management in The Forest Ranger: A Study in Administrative Behavior” by Herbert Kaufman, a social scientist.

Around mid-20th century, the United States initiated forest fire research, including identifying the causes of large fires, the predicting the spread of fire, fire weather forecasting, and the best measures to control large wildfires. Forest and wildland fire control added airplanes, helicopters, large tankers, fire retardant, smokejumpers, hotshot crews, incident command, resource typing and communication systems to help firefighters on the ground.

By the close of the 20th century, the USFS had become more open to calls for a change in policy that included some light-burning and allowing certain fires to burn with control limited to ensuring safety to life and property, essentially managing wildfire.” While that openness was long overdue, it was likely too late to effect change on a large enough scale to do any real good.

A century of suppressing fires in the Western United States has resulted in a high fuel load. That, coupled with warmer temperatures and extended droughts, provides the ingredients for disaster. The unintended consequence of the suppression policy is that we now spend mega-dollars to fight mega-fires, putting at risk firefighters and those living in the affected regions.

Mega-fire in the Mediterranean

Mediterranean-area countries are collaborating to improve their wildland firefighting capacity, but they face similar climate and environmental conditions on the land that at times seem to thwart all the advancements in fire control. There are differences in their organizational strengths, methods, training, staffing, equipment typing and command systems that must be considered in the effort to build a unified regional response that will have to cross borders if needed.

In Greece a couple years ago, a fire situated about 12 miles northeast of Athens and west of the Aegean Sea blew up under extreme weather conditions. This resulted in the fire rapidly spreading eastward where it reached Mati, a resort city located on the coast.

The fire service dispatched 60 personnel, 24 vehicles, two ground teams, three Canadair air tankers and a helicopter. Strong winds out of the west drove the fire approximately 3.5 miles in about 90 minutes and into the crowded coastal tourist town. The fire area, estimated at 3,153 acres from satellite imagery, destroyed 1,220 buildings, 305 motor vehicles and killed 91 people.

During the fire, weather stations recorded the highest speed winds seen in the summer months over the last eight years, with gusts from 62 to 74 mph. The extreme rate of fire spread, plus the ineffective notification, left the occupants and visitors of the densely populated Mati with almost no chance to escape. By the time they were notified, they had few options, and many of the tourists were unfamiliar with the citys layout.

Many attempted to get away by driving toward the ocean. Instead of safe refuge, they found themselves trapped in narrow streets, many with dead ends. Or the traffic was clogged up in elongated city blocks lacking lateral streets. There were few, if any, areas that might have offered refuge from the advancing fire. Visiting tourists were at particular disadvantage. Smoke hindered everyones escape. The situation was not unlike Portugal the in 2017 when 62 people were trapped while escaping an advancing fire front.

Limited options: Fire management and shelter-in-place

Following the lead of the USFS, the nations of the Mediterranean area are professionalizing their wildland firefighting forces by creating the institutions, bureaucratic structures, and necessary technology to wage a unified battle against mega-fires in a changing environment.

The situation in the United States is different. Here we have the institutionalized structures and knowledge to fight fires, but the cost of doing so is becoming prohibitive. However, the time to effectively use light-burning over great areas of the Western United States is long-passed, as any effort to do so is beyond our resources and financial capacity.

Managing wildfire involves not only preparing to fight fires and a rational natural resource fire policy, but also better decision-making for evacuation or sheltering-in-place. As we experience more severe fire conditions near populated areas, the feasibility of evacuation orders is critical. Towns and cities in the path of extreme wildfire may lack the means or infrastructure for a successful evacuation. The alternative to evacuation is sheltering-in-place and is more successful when individuals take active efforts to survive.

Australia learned about active-sheltering from survivors of the deadly Black Saturday Bushfire that occurred on Feb. 7, 2009, when 173 people died.

The most important takeaway is that survival requires adaptability. It is not for the faint of heart or those vulnerable or incapacitated. Survivors face deadly heat and smoke. They may have to seek several areas of refuge during the fire. They may have to fight fire. They may have to help others. Their potential survival also rides on their own efforts to plan and prepare well in advance of the fire.

Bruce Hensler served as a firefighter from 1976 to 2011 in career, combination and volunteer departments. He previously served as a fire program specialist in the Emergency Response Support Branch of the U.S. Fire Administration, retiring in 2017. He also previously served as deputy director of the operations division for the firefighter training program in Maine. Hensler has a master’s degree in public administration. His interest in history led him to write “Crucible of Fire: Nineteenth-Century Urban Fires and the Making of the Modern Fire Service.” More information about his book is available at Connect with Hensler on LinkedIn.

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