Local fire departments are taking on an increasing role in wildland fire preparedness and response. From Maine to California, trends are continuing toward wildland fires that are more frequent, bigger, more dangerous, more expensive, more damaging and harder to fight. With our men and women on the front lines, I want to make a personal appeal to get our leadership on the front lines as well by engaging with the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy (Cohesive Strategy).
Fortunately, while wildland fires have been growing worse, our profession has regularly improved strategies to deal with them. These strategies will only work if fire chiefs make it a priority to learn about the problem and how to implement the strategies.
The Cohesive Strategy is the latest in the series of advancements in wildland fire strategy, but it also marks a significant change in how we approach wildland fire management. Unlike earlier national wildland fire management strategies, the Cohesive Strategy has been developed by all the stakeholders—federal, state, tribal and, yes, local fire departments. The IAFC has been heavily involved with the Cohesive Strategy from the outset to represent you, America’s local fire service leaders.
A Stake in the Fight
Collaboration among stakeholders at the national and regional levels is at the core of the Cohesive Strategy. Three regional committees have been established to coordinate implementation efforts: Northeast, Southern and Western. Wildland fires and cultures are more homogenous within each of the regions than they are across the country as a whole, so preferred and effective fire-management approaches are likely to be different from region to region.
With the leadership of the IAFC Wildland Fire Policy Committee, the IAFC has representatives on all three committees as well as on the national-level Wildland Fire Executive Council and the Wildland Fire Leadership Council, representing your interests. Continuing and expanding collaboration will result in successful and sustained implementation.
Straight Talk: Why Should I Care?
Too often I hear from chiefs, “It won’t happen to me.”
In every region of the U.S., human communities are at-risk from wildland fire. Homes, businesses and people in close proximity to or mixed with flammable wildland vegetation are vulnerable. I understand that with so many priorities competing for your limited time and resources, it’s hard to justify the effort and expense if you have never seen a 30-foot-high, five-mile-long wall of fire descending on your town.
So here's why you should care:
Once it starts, you’re too late – Wildland fire is fast moving, highly unpredictable and unlike any structure fire your personnel are used to. Furthermore, it's not something you can handle safely alone; a well-coordinated response with other agencies is critical to success. Fire departments need to prepare now, not when the fire is at their doorstep.
You can’t afford not to – Expense is often cited as a reason for not preparing for wildland fire, but the cost of wildland fire in the U.S. over the past decade has averaged at or near $1 billion annually. Putting out fires quickly and preventing them from starting in the first place are effective ways to avoid fire costs and losses. The small number of ignitions that become large fires account for the large majority of increasing fire costs-plus-losses. Research shows that fire adapted communities (communities that put resources into wildland-fire management and education efforts) are very attractive for living alongside the natural environment. They can also react more quickly to wildland fire and they show a faster ecological, social and economic recovery after a fire.
If you don’t care, they won’t care – Every day, we see the result of people—both the public and our own members—who fall victim to the idea that, “it won’t happen to me.” What signal do we send to those we protect if we don’t take an active role wildland fire strategy? As our communities grow and our environment changes, it's imperative that the local fire department remains on the front lines as active and vocal proponents of fire and life safety in all its forms.
It’s hell – Trust me when I say that the pictures you see on TV don't do wildland fire justice. It's both awesome and terrifying. Even those who love to fight in the thick of it will tell you it's no place to be alone, untrained and unprepared. Afterward, it’s devastating and demoralizing: whole communities turned to rubble, homes gone, crops and jobs lost, the beauty of nature turned to a barren and charred wasteland.
What You Can Do
We can live alongside nature and the fire that is a part of it. The Cohesive Strategy identifies three major areas where the greatest wildland fire management problems and opportunities are found: fire adapted communities, fire resilient landscapes and fire response.
No agency—federal, state, tribal or local—can accomplish any of these alone. We must bring together the different authorities, knowledge and resources needed or none of us will succeed. Collaboration is the only solution if wildland fire is to be managed well enough that individuals, neighborhoods and the nation can come to live safely with wildland fire.
As both the IAFC president and a chief who has experienced wildland fire first-hand, I ask that you visit the Cohesive Strategy webpage, make an effort to understand these issues and take an active role in organizing community stakeholders around these efforts. If you're already engaged, please encourage other people and organizations with interests affected by wildland fire to engage as well.
Chief Al H. Gillespie, EFO, CFO, MiFireE
President and Chairman of the Board