Two dozen firefighters died last year battling wildfires across the nation, a number that has increased in the face of drier summers and increased job pressures.
The 2006 death toll is not an all-time high, but is part of a rising trend — double the number in 2005, and six more than the average of the past 10 years. The 10-year average has been rising, too, from 6.6 in the 1930s to 18 in the 2000s, according to U.S. Forest Service statistics.
Experts warn that the size and intensity of wildfires is increasing due to longer, hotter and drier summers and a buildup of fuel. Firefighters face greater dangers, particularly when trying to protect the growing number of homes in the woods.
Dick Mangan, a retired Forest Service fire program leader and author of a report on wildfire fatalities from 1990 to 2005, noted that many of the most dangerous fires were near rural homes outside towns in the West.
Firefighters have the experience and research to justify keeping their distance from explosive fires, but when TV news reports show air tankers on the ground and firefighters sitting on their engines while homes are burning, it creates "tremendous pressure" to attack a fire that would be left to burn if no homes where involved, Mangan said.
Experts point to the five firefighters killed last year in the so-called Esperanza fire when a U.S. Forest Service engine crew was overrun by flames as they tried to protect homes in Southern California.
"The five guys who died on the Esperanza fire — if that had just been a pure Southern California brush field, those guys never would have been where they were. But there were homes to be protected up there," Mangan said.
Direct attack strategy
Bill Gabberet, executive director of the International Association of Wildland Fire, noted that research indicates climate change has made summers hotter and longer, and that drought has afflicted much of the West. In addition, he said, the old Forest Service policy of trying to put out every fire by 10 a.m. has created a buildup of fuels in forests.
Firefighters are increasingly being sent in close to fires — what firefighters call direct attack or working with one foot in the black — to protect houses in the woods, he said.
"The good news," said Mark Rey, U.S. undersecretary of agriculture in charge of forest policy, is that only 800 homes were lost last year, despite a record 1 billion acres burned, compared to 3,000 homes lost in 2003, when 5 million acres burned.
Federal, state and local programs have focused on thinning forests, particularly those on the edge of cities and towns, but tens of millions of acres remain to be treated.
Rey said he hopes local communities will impose zoning restrictions on building homes in fire-prone forests, the way flood plains are regulated.
Until they do and thinning projects catch up with the fuel build-up, "I think on balance we are going to continue to see some more difficult fire years," he said.
Forest Service firefighting spending is skyrocketing — from $179 million in 1997 to $1.5 billion in 2006. The agency figures more than half that money goes to wildfires threatening homes, according to a federal audit last year.
Fire spending, including prevention, amounted to 40 percent of the Forest Service budget last year, and is projected to rise to 48 percent in 2008, prompting the agency to consider letting more fires burn rather than trying to put them all out.
Half of deaths from crashes
Mangan noted that burnovers are not even the biggest category of firefighter deaths. Since 1990, motor vehicle accidents, heart attacks — particularly among aging volunteers — and aircraft crashes killed more.
The 2006 deaths included eight in aircraft crashes, seven from burnovers, four from motor vehicle accidents, three from heart attacks, one from a falling tree and one who fell off a lookout tower.
It all goes back to trying to put out nearly every fire, rather than letting more burn, said Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.
"We're sending more troops into these most dangerous fires, so of course we are going to lose more," he said.