Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Fires, Forest
from Encyclopedia of Disaster Relief

Forest Fires and wildfires have long been a part of natural cycle of growth across the earth, and have been both a blessing and curse to mankind. The management of wildfires has changed drastically over the centuries, from early efforts to extinguish every fire to modern wildfire management, where fire is used as tool to manage forests to ensure they remain healthy and vibrant ecosystems.

Wildfires, or bushfires as they are called in Australia and New Zealand, are defined as an uncontrolled fire burning in an undeveloped or lightly developed area, and are associated with the burning of natural vegetation rather than structures. As these fires approach developed areas, they are referred to as wildland-urban interface fires. This is often the case in areas of southern California, where undeveloped wilderness areas are often immediately adjacent to developed areas with very little, if any, buffer zone. While wildfires occur all over the world, they tend to be most prevalent in North America; several countries across South America, Europe, and Asia have also struggled with wildfires over the past 20 years.

Wildfires have been a natural and integral part of ecological systems worldwide since the beginning of time. Before the development of human civilization and human impact on the environment, fires were primarily caused by events such as lightning strikes or volcanic eruptions. Naturally occurring fires help wilderness areas maintain a balance of life and diversity essential to the ecosystem's survival and sustainability. Many species of plants, such as coniferous trees, rely on fires and fire seasons to assist with germination and fertilization of seeds.

Wildfire Seasons and Causes

Wildfires occur across the world during all times of the year; however, they are most common during cycles known as fire seasons, which are based on seasonal weather conditions, fuel characteristics, and human activities. Some of these cycles are take years to complete, while others are completed in a single calendar year. Some countries, including the United States, have numerous fire seasons throughout the year in different geographic areas. For example, the fire season in the western United States is typically during the summer, when temperatures are highest and humidity is at its lowest point. The fire season in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas and Missouri is traditionally in the fall and winter as the majority of deciduous trees lose their leaves, providing an abundant fuel source for fires. These fire seasons can change when a significant environmental catalyst is present, such as a drought or recent ice storm. In southern California, the fire season often coincides with Santa Ana winds, which are notorious for generating large, fast-moving scrub fires in Los Angeles County and neighboring areas.

Wildfires can be caused by numerous natural and human-made catalysts, including lightning, volcanic eruption, underground coal fires, negligent burns, dragging trailer chains, fireworks, campfires, grills, cigarette butts, and arson. Despite the variety of causes, most fires are human-made. A research study conducted by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, revealed that while 88 percent of wildfires between 1988 and 1997 were caused by humans, they only accounted for 48 percent of the acreage burned. Lightning, which was responsible for 12 percent of the fires, accounted for 52 percent of acreage burned. Despite public-information campaigns urging caution with fire in wilderness areas—which have reduced the number of accidental, human-caused fires—the increased population sprawl into wilderness areas and burgeoning popularity of outdoor activities promises to sustain the trend of humans causing at least three-fourths of all wildfires.

Suppression and Management Strategies

Prior to the arrival of Europeans in the United States, Native Americans had long used fire as a land management tool to improve agriculture, hunting, and navigation, and in times of warfare. The first official fire control effort by the U.S. government started in 1885 and involved extinguishing all fires; and by the 1930s and 1940s, the United States adopted a strategy of total suppression as opposed to management of fires. This strategy neglected the natural role fire plays in forest maintenance. As a result, several areas of the western United States experienced extensive undergrowth in forestland, and an overabundance of ground fuels. By the 1960s, a lack of diversity and several severe fire seasons resulting in numerous firefighter deaths began to undermine total suppression as an effective management strategy. The 1970s and 1980s saw a momentous shift away from total suppression and toward using fire as a forest management tool. In 1988, a fire in Yellowstone National Park was allowed to burn until it threatened developed areas before full-scale suppression efforts started.

This strategy marked a significant shift in strategy. Starting in the 1990s, wildfires were managed and allowed to burn, for the most part, and were only suppressed when they threatened human developments, land, or other vulnerable exposures. This strategy was further reinforced in 2001 when four firefighters were killed in the Thirtymile fire in Okanogan County, Washington, a fire that was not threatening any developments or endangered areas. Under Forest Service policy, managers were obligated to fight the fire because it was started by human activity; naturally occurring fires, depending on the forest plan, were allowed to burn. If the fire had originated one mile to the west in a designated wilderness area, regardless of origin, the established fire management plan for wilderness areas may have allowed it to burn. Today, firefighters and fire management teams deployed on most large fires primarily work to minimize the spread of a fire and conduct very little offensive operations, otherwise known as initial attack.

Impact, Incident Command, and Management

Aside from the millions of acres of timber that are consumed every year in the United States, wildfires also have a significant impact on air quality and soil stability, as well as private and commercial property damage. Smoke from fire hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away has been carried by upper-level winds and has settled into another region. In 1998, smoke from fires in central and southern Mexico drifted as far north as Arkansas, causing air quality issues and poor flight visibility. Tragically, wildfires now account for nearly 25 percent of all annual firefighter deaths. In 2008, 26 on-duty firefighters died in association with wildland fires, more than double the 11 fatalities the previous year. The 2008 toll is also above the annual average of 21 wildland fire-associated fatalities from 1999 to 2008. The U.S. Fire Administration reported that in 2008, 64.9 percent of all firefighter fatalities occurred while performing emergency duties.

Twenty-nine firefighters died in 2008 as the result of vehicle crashes; 14 of these deaths involved aircraft crashes. Six firefighters were killed in crashes involving their personal vehicles, and three died in water tender (tanker) crashes. These two vehicle types have historically been most often involved in crashes that take the lives of firefighters. Speed and a lack of seat belt use historically contribute to these incidents.

A leaping crown fire billows smoke on Mirror Plateau at Yellowstone Park in the summer of 1988, which was the driest in the park's recorded history. A total of 248 fires started in greater Yellowstone that year; 1.2 million acres were scorched.

Since the 1970s, a uniform incident command system (ICS) has been the cornerstone of all fire suppression responses nationwide, and allows for assets and personnel to organize into unique, “typed” categories based on their capabilities. This also allows crews from the northeastern United States to be seamlessly inserted into a response in another region with virtually no cross-training necessary. This typing system also ensures that when an asset is ordered, the asset they receive meets a preset list of capabilities. In addition to resource and credential management, ICS allows for the efficient and effective allocation of objectives and priorities on highly complex and complicated incidents.

The incident management system used today by virtually all emergency service and public safety agencies was originally developed and fine-tuned by the wildland fire service. Along with the U.S. Coast Guard, the National Interagency Fire Center and National Wildfire Coordinating Group also played an integral part in the development of the National Incident Management System (NIMS). The use of a uniformed typing system for crews and equipment, based on capability and the RED Card accreditation system, were among the most significant contributions.

Assets, Strategies, and Tactics

Engines used for wildland suppression differ greatly from their urban relatives. While urban engines are usually rather large, carry large amounts of water, and are designed for travel along improved surfaces, wildland engines emphasize maneuverability and are designed to travel off-road. These engines are typed based on water capacity, pump flow rate, and their crew.

Hand crews are typed by capability, with Type I Hot Shot Crews being the most capable and Type III crews the least capable. These crews are typically assigned to constructing fire breaks, performing the initial attack, protecting structures, and supporting engine crews. Within each crew, there are three to four squads consisting of up to five firefighters.

Unlike structure firefighters, wildland firefighters wear lightweight, flame-resistant coveralls and do not carry a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). To compensate for this lower level of personal protective equipment, they are also issued reflective, Mylar fire shelters to help shield them from the heat in the event of an entrapment or burnover. Wildland firefighters also use goggles and bandanas to help shield the eyes, nose, and mouth from smoke. Most wildland firefighters are equipped with basic hand tools such as shovels, fire rakes, and Pulaski axes. Some firefighters may also be equipped with 2-5 gallon backpack water bladders, or a chainsaw. Additional assets commonly used on wildland fires are water supply trucks (tenders), fixed-wing aircraft, rotary-wing aircraft (helicopters), and logistical support teams.

Fire suppression in a wildland setting varies dramatically from residential and industrial firefighting, which tends to focus on active and aggressive extinguishing operations over a relatively short period of time. Fires in a wildland setting, however, require much longer operational periods due to their sheer size and accessibility issues in remote areas, and involve defensive operations aimed at containing the spread of a fire or shielding vulnerable exposures. This is accomplished through the construction of fire breaks, which is a boundary free of combustible material either surrounding the fire or a threatened structure. These boundaries can range in width from a few feet to well over 20 feet. Roadways are often utilized as fire breaks to help isolate the spread of advancing fires. Flame-retardant slurries and foams can also be used make temporary fire breaks or insulate structures from advancing flames. In defensive operations, these substances are typically applied by specially equipped and trained engine crews.

Special aircraft equipped to drop hundreds to thousands of gallons of water or flame-retardant materials can also be used in defensive operations to protect structures, and in emergencies to protect firefighters from being encircled or overrun by advancing flames. The use of smaller, well-controlled fires, known as back fires, helps reduce the amount of unburned fuel between a fire and the fire breaks. This tactic, while effective, must be used with extreme caution due to the risk of back fires jumping fire breaks and spreading outside the intended containment area. Offensive operations, also known as initial/direct attack, are primarily used to extinguish small or spot fires to prevent them from growing into larger incidents. These operations are typically carried out by specialized Type I and II hand crews, engines, and aerial resources.

Regardless of the tactic used to suppress or manage the spread of wildfires, mop-up operations are almost always part of the overall strategy. Mop-up can also be one of the most dangerous operations, because firefighters are entering recently burned areas to search for stumps or logs that may be smoldering but could reignite later. These areas can have unstable soil conditions and contain trees that have been weakened by the fire and can topple with little warning. Mop-up operations can also include burning off unburned areas to minimize the impact of a possible re-ignition after firefighters have left the area.

International Cooperation

In addition to the United States, Canada, and Mexico, several countries outside of North America also experience wildfires. Chief among these are Australia and New Zealand; however, Germany, Italy, France, Greece, Spain, Poland, Portugal, Japan, and Indonesia have all experienced significant wildfires in the past 20 to 30 years.

In 2000, over 500 personnel from Canada, Mexico, Australia, and New Zealand battled U.S. wildfires; it was the first time that foreign firefighters from these countries had participated in fire suppression efforts on U.S. soil. This was made possible through the Wildfire Suppression Assistance Act of 1989, which allows federal agencies to enter into mutual aid agreements with foreign federal, state, and local governments. The act also provides for assistance when no agreement currently exists. Since the summer of 2000, these countries have embarked on a successful partnership and collaboration program to facilitate the exchange of research, training, technology, and when necessary, personnel and equipment.

Similar command structures, training, and physical requirements enabled the U.S. Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior to sign an agreement with Australian Prime Minister John Howard on September 9, 2001, for mutual assistance and support in firefighting assistance between the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. This multinational collaboration is often looked upon as a best practice and model across the emergency management and response field.

See Also:

Australia and Pacific Region, Cloquet, Minnesota, Fire (1918), Fire Departments, Fires, Urban, Great Chicago Fire (1871), Hinckley, Minnesota, Fire (1894), History of Disaster Relief, North America, National Incident Management System (NIMS), Peshtigo, Wisconsin, Fire (1871), Thumb Fire, Michigan (1881), United States, Northwest and Northern Plains

Further Readings
  • Craig, Judy R., Hubert, Dave, and Teie, William C., eds. Firefighter's Handbook on Wildland Firefighting: Strategy, Tactics and Safety. Rescue, CA: Deer Valley Press, 2005.
  • Daniel, Terry C., Carroll, Matthew S., Moseley, Cassandra, and Raish, Carol, eds. People, Fire, and Forests: A Synthesis of Wildfire Social Science. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2007.
  • Johnson, Edward A. and Miyanishi, Kiyoko, eds. Forest Fires: Behavior and Ecological Effects. Maryland Heights, MO: Academic Press, 2001.
  • Maclean, John N. The Thirtymile Fire: A Chronicle of Bravery and Betrayal. New York: Mariner Books, 2001.
  • Sawyer, Dalton
    University of North Carolina Health Care System
    © SAGE Publications, Inc

    Related Articles


    Full text Article The legacy of wildfires
    Guide to Global Hazards

    Wildfires create enormous problems, even after the last ember is extinguished. In July 1994, a wildfire burned 800 hectares (2,000 acres) of...

    Full text Article Wildfires: Risk and Hazard
    Encyclopedia of Geography

    Analysis of the threat, hazard, and risk relative to wildfire is a spatial problem: Where does a wildfire occur relative to resources valued by...

    Full text Article Wildfires
    The Encyclopedia of Global Warming Science and Technology

    In 1991, 13 percent of the U.S. Forest Service's budget was spent on firefighting; by 2006, however, that figure was 43 percent. Between the...

    See more from Credo