High Expectations Create Hazard for Firefighters in the Wild

By | May 29, 2007

A building boom of homes on the fringes of wilderness has created a new kind of hero: the wildland firefighter who often saves the day — and the homes.

But success has created high public expectations that can have deadly consequences.

The deaths of five federal firefighters who perished last fall in the so-called Esperanza Fire protecting an empty mountain vacation home were blamed in part last week on social and political pressures and decisions to put homes before the safety of firefighters.

Now, as another fire season heats up, some officials are considering whether saving homes should always be a high priority — particularly as suburbs increasingly brush up against dense forests and chaparral-covered hillsides.

The U.S. Forest Service plans to issue a plan addressing flaws in the response to the Esperanza Fire as early as this week and is conducting a longer-term review of overall firefighter safety, said Chief Forester Gail Kimbell.

While Kimbell and other officials would not say whether the service is considering a change in policy on defending homes in certain fire conditions, she cited the decision to protect homes in remote Twin Pines as a key factor that led to the five deaths.

Others, however, say while firefighters will continue to protect homes, a shift in strategy is inevitable as firefighters increasingly risk their lives defending communities that have been built in prime fire territory.

“We are not going to die for property,” said Tom Harbour, national director of fire and aviation management for the Forest Service. “It’s time for homeowners to take responsibility for the protection of their homes.”

In the Esperanza fire, for example, the men who died were trying to save a home that had been flagged as “non-defensible” on a state fire planning map several years before.

Harbour’s comments reflect a growing uneasiness within the Forest Service about defending homes in populous rural areas, said John Maclean, a federally certified firefighter and the author of several books on wildfire disasters.

The agency spends 44 percent of its budget on wildfire suppression annually, he said, and much of that work means protecting homes where suburbs collide with wilderness.

Maclean said the Forest Service could scale back structural protection without too much political fallout, but that would not be easy for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which answers to the governor.

More than 6 million homes in the Golden State stand in wildfire “red zones” and that number is expected to grow by 20 percent in the next decade.

“There is an expectation on the part of a lot of people that somebody better get in there and do or die for their house,” Maclean said. “If you stop doing that and you stop taking reasonable risk to protect structures, you’d have a new governor in about five minutes.”

David Kassel, who rebuilt his San Diego home after it burned in 2003, said he would be shocked if firefighters started backing off structural protection.

“What is the purpose of the fire department? Are they just going to stand around and watch?” Kassel said. “If the structures are being left to the local departments to take care of, isn’t that simply shifting the risk from one department to another? I wouldn’t want to be the fireman who would say, ‘I’m going to leave this to you because we can’t handle something risky.'”

On the ground, however, public expectations can sometimes lead to bravado and a cavalier attitude, particularly after a string of firefighting successes.

Firefighters were hailed as heroes earlier this month after saving the historic Griffith Park on the edges of downtown Los Angeles and the resort destination of Catalina Island in one week.

The report on the Esperanza Fire lists overconfidence, excessive motivation, acquiescence to social pressure and a risk-taking mind-set as contributing factors in the Engine 57 deaths.

Arrogance can lead to complacency, injury and death, said Peter Leschak, a 26-year firefighter and a commander for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry.

“One of the standard fire orders states ‘fight the fire aggressively having provided for safety first,”‘ he said. “There has been an argument recently to change that because we don’t need to encourage firefighters to be more aggressive — half the time we’re holding them back.”

Still, firefighters and those who study the wildland fire community say they’ve seen important changes in the past few years in attitudes about safety. They credit the Southern California firestorms of 2003 — which killed 22 people and destroyed 3,640 homes — and the Esperanza Fire deaths for the shift.

As the deadly wildfires unfolded that year, fire commanders told the public they couldn’t save all the homes, said Tom Scott, a University of California expert on areas where cities encroach on wilderness. That was a big shift from the days when firefighters talked about fire as if it was a war to be won at all costs.

“You don’t see people saying, ‘If we can fill just one more sandbag, we can stop the hurricane,”‘ said Scott. “And the most sophisticated fire guys are saying, ‘We can’t save every house, we can’t fight all the fires and in some cases, with all the technology in the world, there’s not a thing we can do to stop it.'”

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