Douglas E. Wood
Any forest fire, brush fire, grass fire, or any other outdoor fire that is not controlled and supervised is considered a wildfire. These fires cause damage to the forest resource as well as to wildlife habitat, water quality, and air quality.
State forestry agencies are the leads for wildfire suppression on millions of acres of forested and agricultural land in the Carolinas. To protect public safety and valuable forest resource, these agencies use highly trained wildland firefighters and specialized equipment and techniques. In cooperation with local fire departments, they suppress many thousands of fires every year.
Although structural firefighters and their wildland counterparts work in different “offices” and employ very different tactics, they are nonetheless brothers (and sisters) in arms, their bonds forged by the shared experience of and commitment to preventing and suppressing fire.
The firefighters who occupy the ranks of state forestry (and other natural resource-related) agencies know all too well the importance of their structure-centered brethren, especially in the South, as smaller local (often volunteer) fire departments are usually among the first on the scene to many of the region’s wildfires, large and small. In the southeast, response to wildland fires accounts for 25% or more of the total call volume for many rural fire departments.
The proliferation of local fire departments over the past 35 years, which naturally results in their closer proximity to the ignition points of most fires, wildland or not, has dramatically reduced the number and severity of wildfires in the same time frame. The number of all-career or mostly career departments, for example, increased 75 percent between 1986 and 2019.1
Likewise, while more than 6,700 wildfires burned nearly 40,000 acres in South Carolina alone in 1986, the state only experienced 1,361 wildfires that burned fewer than 8,000 acres in 2019. Moreover, the Palmetto State has only had more than 2,000 wildfires in a single year once since 2011.2
Despite their special training in rugged, usually forested, terrain, wildland firefighters dispatched to wildfire calls are many times greeted by local fire department personnel who are already on the scene. This is a fortunate development, one that has resulted in fewer structures damaged, fewer acres burned, and fewer lives lost.
It has also naturally led to increased interaction between structural and wildland departments and personnel, creating opportunities for interdisciplinary training. Fire Management Officers with the South Carolina Forestry Commission, for example, are available to conduct wildland fire-focused training for local fire departments, instructing them in wildland fire safety protocols, acreage estimation, and size-up, initial attack conventions, unified command protocol, and other integral aspects of working under the incident command system (ICS) framework.
In fact, local fire departments can request wildland fire training like this by contacting their state forestry agency or by making a formal request through the state fire marshal’s office.
While the last 30+ years of statistics bear out the otherwise positive trend of fewer wildfires, the danger from wildfire, especially in the Carolinas, has not abated. The population in the mountainous and coastal regions of both states continues to surge, creating new threats in a new frontier, the wildland-urban interface (WUI).
Although national headlines tend to feature wildfires threatening homes in California and other hot spots in the western United States, the WUI problem they describe is not exclusively a western phenomenon. The wildland-urban interface is defined as any area where homes and other development meet what was previously “wild land,” and there is a continuously growing contingent of people in the Carolinas who make their homes in this danger zone.
Booming growth in coastal communities and expansive urban sprawl in other metropolitan areas create more WUI land across the US South’s coastal plain, Piedmont and Blue Ridge regions every year. North Carolina, in fact, ranks No. 1 with respect to acres of WUI; more than 13 million of its 33.7 million acres of forested land are in this critical danger zone. The Tarheel State also ranks No. 4 in both the number of homes (52 percent) and the number of people (51 percent) within its WUI areas.3
Fire departments across the country are increasingly being called upon to respond to WUI fires, including brush, grass, and forest fires; the National Fire Protection Association reports that 46 million residences in 70,000 communities across the United States are at risk for WUI fires.4
When houses are built close to forests or other types of natural vegetation, they pose two problems related to wildfires. First, there will be more wildfires simply because of human ignitions, mistakenly or not. Second, these wildfires will pose a greater risk to lives and homes, they will be hard to fight, and letting natural fires burn is not typically an available option. Wildfires in developed areas are tough to control, partly due to access and other issues. As development increases, lives and property are threatened as never before. All of this makes wildfire response in WUI areas more complex and requires constant communication between fire departments, forestry agencies, and other first responders.
The state forestry agencies in the southeast, along with the USDA Forest Service, worked to create an online tool that fire departments can use to visualize wildfire risk in their protected area. This free tool, called the Southern Wildfire Risk Assessment Portal (SouthWRAP), uses maps, fuels data, and other information to illustrate areas within an area that have high, moderate, or low wildfire risk, allowing users to pre-plan for a response, determine where to target fire prevention efforts, and to support budget and grant requests. Local fire departments across the South are encouraged to access this valuable resource. Visit https://southernwildfirerisk.com and request access to the Professional Viewer.
Volunteer Fire Assistance grants
While the importance of local fire departments making it a priority to know and interact with their wildland counterparts cannot be overstated in terms of fighting a fire, there can be material benefits associated with forging relationships with state forestry agencies as well.
Both the North Carolina Forest Service and the South Carolina Forestry Commission administer the USDA Forest Service’s Volunteer Fire Assistance (VFA) grants program. The VFA program offers 50/50 matching-fund grants to local fire departments that want to increase their firefighting capacity, especially for those departments serving communities in the wildland-urban interface. Fire departments serving rural communities with a population of 10,000 or fewer residents are eligible for VFA grants.
The intent of the VFA grant is to help the rural volunteer fire departments meet the WUI challenge. Through financial assistance in purchasing wildland firefighting equipment and making necessary training available, rural volunteer fire departments can more effectively and safely assist their state’s forestry agency in dealing with wildland fires that threaten the rural developments and communities they serve.