FROM THE PRESIDENT’S DESK.Â As you may recall from the previous column, the absence of basic statistical information about the U.S. wildland fire problem – specifically, the wildland/urban interface (WUI) – is frustrating to those of us in the wildland community.
In the last column, the final discussion about the 46 million homes in the WUI needs an update. What census figures are telling us today is that of these 46 million homes, 25 million, or 54%, are more than 10 years in age; 21 million, or 46%, are less than 10 years old. Even in our sluggish economy, projections are that more than 8 million new homes will be constructed in the next 10 years; with a bullish economy that figure triples.
We have very good statistics as to the number of wildland fires, acreages and costs, thanks to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho. On average, nearly 100,000 wildfires burn approximately 7 million acres of land each year. Most of the past century’s wildfire activity has been seasonal in nature. However, recent years have proven otherwise, and we have experienced fire activity in every month of the calendar year. Firefighters are successful in extinguishing 97% of these 100,000 fires and containing them to less than 10 acres in size. No other country comes close to this benchmark of success, and America’s first responders are given high marks. But, the 3% of fires that escape initial action occur during critical weather conditions and are usually located in the WUI.
The fact sheet next looks at the numbers of structures lost to wild- fires by year per decade. It shows, again, that since the 1960s when we lost on average about 209 structures per year, each subsequent decade shows growing numbers in this escalating trend. (See chart, left.)
As we look at structures destroyed from wildfires just since 2000, it becomes a bit overwhelming: the grand total since 2000 is 38,601.
The document then looks at costs that are averaging about $4.7 billion per year for federal (USDA, DOI, DOD and other federal agencies), state and local governments for suppression of these wildland fires that escape initial action. When you see the breakdown of numbers, it becomes very evident we have a growing problem.
The document gives a good overview of the 70,000+ communities at risk of wildland fire, and provides a telling story that with a decade of federal/state funding and support, we still have a long way to go to make a dent in the statistics. About 2% of the 70,000 at-risk communities have been designated as Firewise, Firesafe, Fireready or Firesmart Communities. About 11% of the communeties have completed Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPPs), or approximately 8,000 plans. Less than 10%, or about 7,000 communities in the United States that are at risk of a WUI fire, have adopted or utilize a WUI code.
As budgets are cut, personnel are being reduced; it is interesting to see an overview of just how many firefighters are dealing with wildland fire in the United States. There are 56,000 wildland firefighters within the federal and state government; this includes all employees utilized for firefighting, even if it is not their primary job. This is a dramatically declining figure in today’s world of budget cuts and downsizing. In the Fire Service, there are about 1.1 million structural firefighters, roughly 825,000 volunteer and 275,000-paid career. It is estimated that about 100,000 are involved with wildland firefighting to some degree or another. It is interesting to see that there are estimated to be about 18,590 contract wildland firefighters, helping to fill the gap in personnel needs in very active fire seasons.
It is a very compelling list of facts and figures that makes one think about this important issue. Yet it is only a start. We still need solid statistics, historical data and research to help all of the stakeholders involved in solving this issue make a difference. If you would like a copy of the report, you can download a PDF at www.iawfonline.org.