ON THE AFTERNOON OF OCTOBER 7, an S-2T tanker plane fighting the Dog Rock Fire in Yosemite National Park crashed while making a retardant drop, killing its experienced pilot. Publications such as the Los Angeles Times reported on the crash and the subsequent preliminary findings report by the National Transportation Safety Board, which identified the facts of the crash and stated that a cause had yet to be determined.
Air crashes and fatalities are more common in wildfire aviation than domestic commercial aviation due to the sortie risk, flight environment, and a host of issues related to the age of some of the aircraft. While media coverage of such events can have a sensationalizing effect on how the public views the risk of wildfire, they also illustrate the significant risks faced by responders.
About a week after the crash, I visited the National Wildland Firefighters Monument on the grounds of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. Paths in the park-like monument were lined with commemorative stone markers honoring wildland firefighters who have died in the line of duty or in related training. The monument is maintained by the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, which lists the names of the fallen and honors their sacrifice at its website. When I visited, five names had been added to the honor rolls for 2014, and the foundation had offered its support to the family of the pilot killed in the October crash.
Walking the monument’s winding paths, I was reminded of the great responsibility communities have to address wildfire, not only for their own safety, but also for those who serve and protect them. NFPA’s Firewise® program helps communities come together and collectively tackle their wildfire risk. We help residents identify risks of blowing embers and the heat from direct flame impingement to their property. We encourage them to talk with their neighbors and develop plans for positive community action. These safety messages not only help residents, but also illuminate the larger risks communities face from wildfire.
Recently, Firewise held a virtual workshop that helped illustrate what wildfire risk reduction is all about. The presenter, Jeremy Keller, community risk reduction officer with the Macochee Joint Ambulance District in West Liberty, Ohio, highlighted community hazards as seen through the eyes of responding firefighters. He detailed what residents can do about road access, road and address signage visibility, rural bridge crossings, gate access, and on-site risks. If trees are densely hanging over access roads, for example, road signage and address markers are obscured, vehicle maneuverability is limited, and homes are more fire prone, creating additional risks for responders confronting wildfires. While some debate the role of home defensible space in large-acre wildfire suppression, residents who understand their risk and take an active role in mitigation activities stand a much better chance of protecting themselves, their communities, and responders from the dangers of fire.
Wildfire is an important part of the country’s natural ecology and will always be with us, which is why it’s critically important to do whatever we can to minimize the risks for those who fight those fires, whether they’re flying above the flames or cutting fire breaks on the ground. Sharing responder concerns with residents helps everyone understand what the risks really mean, and it’s that knowledge that can help residents and communities play valued roles in ensuring a safer environment for all.