Wildfires have intensified in the last 10 years, says Michelle Ryerson, chair of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group's Safety and Health Working Team. More extreme fires require more complex methods of firefighting, leading not only to higher costs but a change over time in the risks that firefighters face.

In 1987, Ryerson's team began keeping records on firefighter fatalities, collecting data since 1910, in an effort to spot trends and develop better safety measures. Burnover deaths -- deaths caused when firefighters are caught in advancing flames -- have decreased due to faster alert systems, while vehicle accidents (particularly for volunteers) and aircraft crashes have increased as firefighters rely more on machines and travel farther afield.

Fire size and firefighter deaths
Felice Pace
Felice Pace
Aug 28, 2009 10:33 AM
The often repeated statistics which assert that fires are getting larger is meaningless because the national firefighting bureaucracy refuses to distinguish between the now vast burnouts and backfires which it now regularly employs and the natural wildfires.

The main reason backfires and burnouts have grown is the current emphasis on firefighter safety combined with the "Just do it" attitude of firefighters and fire commanders. Because you often can not fight fires directly in the rugged western mountains without endangering firefighters, commanders now have firefighters back way off and light massive burnouts and backfires. The resulting smoke adds to the health risks which residents near these operations are forced to endure.

So we must ask the hard questions:

     -- Are we - or more precisely the national firefighting bureaucracy - trading the health of local residents for firefighter safety?

     -- Are these massive backfires and burnouts really necessary? Where I live in the Klamath Mountains firefighters have never put out one of the large fires - fall rain and snow put them out - but they have vastly increased the acres burned with their futile, health and environment damaging backfires and burnouts. In the 1999 Meagram Fire in the Trinity Alps Wilderness the natural fire never reached the burnouts but those burnouts did blow up when the wind shifted threatening the Hoopa Reservation and the town of Willow Creek. The wildfire - not stupid decisions by fire mangers - was blamed for the near panic that resulted.

     -- Are these firefighting deaths necessary? How many of these deaths are the result of firefighters and managers who do not know the local area, local wind patterns and local fire behavior and - as a result - make uninformed decisions that put firefighters and local residents at greater risk?

After walking and studying every large fire in Northwest California and Southwest Oregon since 1987, I've reached the conclusion that we can decrease the annual acres burned, firefighter deaths, damage to the health of local residents and damage to the environment by ending the dominance of the national firefighting bureaucracy and putting more control into the hands of local and state firefighers who know the land and how fire behaves on that land.
Firefighter Fatalities
Dick Mangan
Dick Mangan
Sep 10, 2009 02:34 PM
Fekice - there is some merit to what you say, but with regard to the deaths of wildland firefighters, I believe you'vew failed to look carefully at the numbers: the top 3 causes of deaths are aircraft crashes, vehicle accidents and heart attacks. Most of these fatalities occur on initiakl attack or extended initial attack, and most are "local folks" who know the country.
Another question about putting the fire suppression into the hands of local and State firefighters: are those groups also willing to accept the financial burden? We all know the Fed FEMA is ready to bail out California and LA County after the smoke settles from the Station Fire: where does it end?