By Scott Freitag
A report issued in mid-June by the insurance risk firm Verisk estimated that about 128,800 homes in Utah were at high or extreme risks from wildfires. That’s 13.2 percent of the homes in this state. That figure is likely to climb, as 90-degree temperatures in northern Utah threatened to make tinder out of the tall, green grasses in the heavily populated foothills overlooking the Wasatch Front.
Although Utah was 10th on the list as far as number of households at risk, it sounds almost minimal compared to the 2.1 million households at risk in California (15 percent of the total number of homes in the state). Montana—which is new to the wildfire risk analysis—comes in first with the percentage of households threatened (27 percent, or about 130,200 homes). Idaho is second at 25 percent (163,000 homes).
There is no escaping this inevitable scourge of the West.
Wildfire is a natural part of the environment; however, a number of factors, such as hotter and drier summers and persistent drought leading to longer fire seasons, are resulting in larger and more costly wildfires. As of June 19, 12 wildland fires had already burned more than 35,000 acres in Oregon, California, Alaska, and Arizona. During the first five months of 2015, California was up almost 54 percent over the five-year average for the same period.
Wildland fires require an approach different from structural fires. In the case of wildland fires, firefighters direct their efforts toward controlling its spread by creating a gap, or firebreak, across which fire cannot move. Fire crews attempt to stop the fire by several methods: trenching, direct attack with hose streams, aerial bombing, spraying of fire-retarding chemicals, and controlled back-burning.
A fire crew’s desired culture of adventure and hardship are distinguishing characteristics, but the bravado comes with risk. The work is extremely demanding, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between 2000–2013, nearly 300 on-duty wildland firefighters died from wildfire hazards, with fatalities resulting from burnovers, entrapments, heat-related illnesses and injuries, cardiac arrest, smoke inhalation, and vehicle-related injuries.
That’s where the emergency fire dispatcher’s responsibility is most essential: protecting lives in the field.
Dispatchers do this through system coordination. They disperse fire crews and maintain communication with firefighters, management, and other agencies, such as city fire departments. They track the location of each fire crew and compile statistics involving wildland fires. They operate radios, telephones, and computers and process information on fire weather conditions, forecasts, and wildland fire management activities.
Wildland dispatch is often specialized and divided into tasks and spread among several individuals, such as supervisory, support, and recording dispatchers. Depending on the assigned position, they conduct briefings, set priorities for shifts, and update logs to reflect all significant shift activity. They train local dispatchers on policy and procedure and coordinate expanded dispatch that requires interagency cooperation.
Agencies in wildfire-prone areas also continually modify their approach.
For example, following the 2003 Cedar Fire in San Diego, Calif., the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department put in place a regional cooperative dispatch system that is now used every day, and not just for wildfires. The Cedar Fire destroyed 2,232 residences and 22 commercial properties in southern San Diego County, and it was responsible for the death of 14 people, including one firefighter. The wildfire burned 280,278 acres, including public land in the Cleveland National Forest.
According to the report “Fighting a Wildfire—10 Years After the Cedar Fire,” the system, among many innovations, employs a cooperative approach allowing fire departments to dispatch the nearest available resources regardless of jurisdiction. They go where they’re needed.
The West will never be immune to the wildfire threat. That makes it all the more important for emergency fire dispatchers to provide the dependable first link in these potentially catastrophic events.