Author(s): Lucian Deaton. Published on July 1, 2017.

Structural Lessons

What wildland firefighting agencies can learn from structural firefighters about facing the challenge of an escalating fire threat

It might seem odd to think that current fire science research on the spread of interior structure fires could shed light on a growing wildfire issue. A wildland fire and a house fire, after all, are affected by different variables, require different response techniques, and call for different equipment. Yet both types of fires have changed dramatically in recent decades, and the ways the fire service has adapted to the new realities of structure fire hold important lessons for how wildland firefighting agencies can approach the new reality of wildfire.

The parallels struck me recently as I revisited an NFPA Journal article from a couple years ago. “New Fires, New Tactics,” which appeared in the January 2015 issue, details the research being done on modern residential structural fire behavior. The gist is that modern construction materials and methods, as well as the contents of home furnishings, have led to fires that can burn much more aggressively and pose greater dangers to inhabitants and responders alike. Fires that used to take more than 20 minutes to reach flashover can now reach the same point in under five. This significant shift in the severity of the hazard is changing how fire departments train and respond to fires, the equipment they use to do it, and the resources they deploy to educate and inform the public.

Similarly, the nature of wildfire is changing. Variables including a warming planet, drought, and excess fuel loads have caused wildfires to take off faster, burn more aggressively, and become larger than ever before. Millions more acres of wildland are burning each season compared to what we saw just a few decades ago; between 2000 and 2016, a total of approximately 114 million acres burned in the United States, compared to about 51 million acres over the previous 17-year span (1983 to 1999), according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The annual number of megafires—fires larger than 100,000 acres—has increased significantly over the past two decades, and these fires are having a dramatic impact on federal budgets. Between 2000 and 2016, annual federal fire suppression costs surpassed $1 billion in every year but four.

In many cases, the scale and scope of the changing wildfire problem are presenting firefighting agencies with challenges that their training has not prepared them to anticipate or handle. As wildfires behave differently than we’ve come to expect, the answer is not just throwing more wet stuff on the red stuff. Sensational approaches, such as Boeing’s 2016 patent for artillery shell–delivered wildfire retardant, aren’t likely to achieve the necessary adaptation to this new threat, just as adding more trucks won’t sufficiently help the fire service adapt to the changing dynamic in structural fires.

Instead, wildfire agencies and land management organizations should consider how the fire service came to understand the emerging shift in the structural fire threat and how it identified the necessary changes to training, response, and fire education to meet it. Like their counterparts on the structural side, wildland agencies have observed changes in fire behavior for years, and this anecdotal evidence can inform further scientific study. As science helps us understand the new wildfire dynamic, we need to apply that knowledge to planning and strategy, including how we communicate with the public in both preparation and emergency scenarios. Our training needs to adapt to accommodate new expectations and firefighting techniques, and our equipment needs to complement those techniques.

In one way or another, structural firefighters are already addressing their version of these issues, and the wildfire world needs to do the same. The scale of the wildfire challenge certainly goes beyond a single structure, but so do the stakes.

LUCIAN DEATON is project manager in NFPA’s Wildland Fire Operations Division.