Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Wildland Fire

Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Wildland Fire

Article excerpt

A strike team firefighter spends a week on the line combating fire in the Florida interface.

A huge column of smoke hung in the sky just a few miles east of the command post at the Volusia County Fairgrounds in Central Florida, an ominous portent of work to be done. Humid, early morning air captured smoke in low-lying areas like fog from my boyhood home in Maine, an ever-present reminder of why thousands of firefighters had been called to duty in this once beautiful rural area where the landscape and the people were now scarred by uncontrolled wildland fires.

The fires in Central Florida started around Memorial Day, 1998. A long dry spell, coupled with dangerously low relative humidity, led to the worst fire conditions this state has seen in over 50 years. Before sustained rain in early July finally slowed the fires, over 355 homes and businesses were destroyed and almost half a million acres (20,000 hectares) burned.

A complicated matrix of ineffective laws and policies, budget constraints, and public opposition to prescribed burning all contributed to dangerously high fuel loads in both public and private forest lands.

We can only hope the fires will serve as a catalyst for changes in laws and policies and public sentiment so that such devastating fires will never occur again.

Lessons from Fire

The Florida Division of Forestry manages the largest prescribed burning program in the United States, burning approximately 1.5 to 2 million acres (600,000 to 800,000 hectares) per year. It is the policy of the Division of Forestry to encourage prescribed burning consistent with good forestry practices. However, prescribed burning in the wildland-urban interface does have political ramifications. Smoke from prescribed burning can adversely affect visibility on nearby roads, sometimes with fatal consequences. Smoke exacerbates many different health problems, especially respiratory ailments and allergies. And these are just a few of the sensitive political issues.

After the fires, Governor F. Lawton Chiles ordered studies on wildland fire mitigation, especially in wildland-urban interface areas. Recommendations included better wildland firefighting training for local fire departments, heightened public awareness about the necessity for prescribed burning, regionally based strike teams that can quickly respond to danger areas, upgraded helicopters used for fire suppression, and better radio systems to allow for common frequencies. The cost for these proposed initiatives will exceed $27 million but will be far less than the estimated $130 million it cost to suppress the fires of 1998.

Mobilization

I'm a captain for Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue, a large urban fire department that serves all the unincorporated areas of Palm Beach County, Florida. My department coordinated resources from fire departments throughout South Florida, sending crews to central Florida to help battle the fires. As the leader of a strike team with five brush trucks and a command vehicle, I saw more fire in a week than I have in my entire 22 year career. Over a period of six weeks, 10,000 firefighters from 47 states came to Florida to battle wildland fires.

Although I had never worked with - and in some cases never even met - the people I would be leading, they were all experienced firefighters. A three-hour trip north to central Florida in a cramped van gave us an opportunity to get to know one another and for me to size up my crew. My first impressions of people are usually pretty accurate, and I had a good feeling about this crew. I hoped I was right, because our time together would literally be a trial by fire.

During the trip, I called Chuck Lupo, the leader of the strike team we were relieving and a lieutenant for Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue. When Lupo finally answered his cell phone, he sounded exhausted, and I could tell from his tone of voice that he was busy. …

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