California is known for wildfires, but little is it known that every other state is at risk for them as well.
Every year thousands of wildfires burn millions of acres across the United States. It’s not a question of “if,” but rather “when” the next wildfire will threaten a community.
Fires in the wildland urban interface are often in the news. Nine of the 25 costliest fires in U.S. history, in terms of property loss, were described as forest, wildland or wildland urban interface fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association. The eight costliest happened in the last two decades.
The term wildland urban interface is used to describe areas where extensive vegetation mixes with numerous structures and their inhabitants. WUI fires often begin and grow large in vegetated areas before spreading to structures.
The public doesn’t usually realize how often local fire departments are called to smaller brush, grass and forest fires. In the U.S., the northeast and the southeast regions experience the most wildfires, according to Lucian Deaton, senior project manager of the National Fire Protection Association’s Wildland Fire Operations Division.
Last year, the usda Forest Service reported more than 13,000 wildfires in the northeastern area. Those fires burned more than 76,000 acres of forest and grassland. State forestry agencies and volunteer fire departments extinguished the bulk of these fires. In the Southeast more than 100 million acres of land have a moderate to extreme potential for wildfire. The big question is, at what intensity?
Fifty-seven percent of total brush, grass and forest fires that were handled by local fire departments in 2013 were in the South. The South also had the highest rate of total brush, grass and forest fires per 1,000 square miles overall, as well as the highest rate for grass fires and forest fires specifically. It ranked second in brush, or brush and grass mixture, fires.
In January, 48 wildfires burned in Arkansas in one weekend. Over 1,460 acres were scorched. Twenty-one homes in close proximity of the flames were saved by suppression efforts.
Jimmy Sullivent, chief of Crawford County, Ark., Rural Fire District 6, a volunteer fire department, said fighting wildfires is becoming a challenge.
“It’s changing what we are running into,” stated Sullivent, who is also president of the Arkansas Rural and Volunteer Firefighters Association. More people are moving to rural areas, typically near forests or a national or state park, which is a recipe for disaster. Sullivent said it’s also getting tougher to fight wildfires.
“We are trying to fight house fires,” he said. “It (wildfires) is not what we are trained to do.”
He advised fire departments to think of firefighter safety first. “Try to stay up to date on firefighter training,” he said. “A better trained firefighter is not necessarily safer, but has more knowledge.”
Several communities have taken a proactive approach. Taylor, Fla., has distinguished itself by implementing extensive measures to prepare for the next wildfire. After fires in 2004, residents created a Community Wildfire Protection Plan that called for fuel treatments, such as prescribed burns, and the construction of a 30-foot-wide perimeter control line to encircle the town.
On a larger scale, the Fire Adapted Communities effort encourages the various players, i.e. local officials, land managers, residents, planners and insurance companies, to talk with each other about the threat and find common paths forward. NFPA manages this national level program with the usfs, Deaton said. For more information, visit www.firewise.org/wildfire-preparedness.