Wildland Fire Fatalities in the United States

1990 to 1998

Wildland fire operations are conducted in a high-risk environment. Individuals involved in all aspects of fire management are subject to the dangers of burnovers, vehicle and aircraft accidents, and medical emergencies.

In the period between 1990 and 1998, 133 individuals died while involved in wildland fire activities. These deaths occurred on 94 separate events.

Individuals involved in wildland fire operations died more often in burnovers than from any other cause. Fifteen separate burnovers led to the deaths of 39 firefighters in 13 states.

Fatalities from burnovers have occurred in each year except 1992, ranging from a high of 17 in 1994 to a low (excepting 1992) of 1 in 1997 and 1998. Burnovers were responsible for 29% of all fatalities in the period analyzed, even though they represented just 16% of the events causing fatalities.

This demonstrates that the number of burnover fatalities is not just a function of the quality of the decisions leading to the event, but also represents the number of individuals at the scene.


Total fireline deaths

Aircraft accidents are the next leading cause of fatalities among wildland fire personnel (total: 30, 23%), closely followed by heart attacks (total: 28, 21%) and vehicle accidents (total: 25, 19%).


Fatalities by cause

Other causes of death on wildland fires include falling snags (total: 5, 4%), and miscellaneous (total: 5, 4%). Specific causes in the miscellaneous category include drowning, electrocution, suicide, and training.

Cause of Death

Burnovers

Burnovers are the leading cause of death. Fifteen separate burnover events from 1990 to 1998 killed 39 firefighters. Twenty were killed in two incidents. Six firefighters died on the Dude Fire in Arizona in 1990, and 14 died on the South Canyon Fire in Colorado during 1994.

Both fires occurred during extreme conditions. Another 13 burnover events killed 19 firefighters.


Wildland fire entrapments

What can we learn from those burnovers?


Initial Phase

Most of the burnover events occurred during the initial attack or extended initial-attack phase. This is when the firefighters are often involved in independent action, either as members of a small crew, an engine, or even as individuals. The higher level incident management teams are not on the scene, communications may be confused, fire weather and behavior conditions may not be widely known or recognized, and the chain of command may not be well established.

Transition Phase

The other dangerous phase of a wildfire is the "transition phase," when the fire has escaped initial attack efforts and higher level incident management teams are being brought in. During this phase some confusion may exist over areas of responsibility; locations of different resources such as crews, engines, or line overhead; or appropriate radio frequencies for tactical operations.

This is often the time the fire is exceeding the capability of the initial-attack resources.


Heart Attacks

Heart attacks were associated with twenty-eight deaths (21%) in wildland fire operations. A large volume of medical literature details the relationship between physical fitness and cardiac health. Regular exercise programs have a demonstrated record of reducing heart attacks. This is especially important to individuals who are over 40 years old and who may not live an active lifestyle until called on for fire suppression.

Aircraft

Aircraft with both rotary and fixed wing have become increasingly important in wildfire suppression and are perhaps the most visible public symbol of aggressive fire suppression.

A combination of factors resulted in 30 deaths from 1990 to 1998:



Vehicle Accidents

Vehicle accidents while traveling to the fire, at the fire, and while returning from the fire resulted in 25 fatalities (18%) from 1990 to 1998. Volunteers accounted for 18 fatalities (72%). The high rate of fatalities volunteers suffer from vehicle accidents may be a result of infrequent opportunities to drive the engines. Other factors may include volunteers’ areas of response being more congested than the Federal and State wildlands, the heavier weight (and longer braking distances) of rural engines compared to the Federal engines.

A disturbing fact in vehicle-caused fatalities is the number of firefighters killed while riding outside engines: these individuals are often killed by being thrown off an engine, or by being crushed when the engine leaves the road and rolls over them.


Snags

Falling snags (dead standing trees without leaves or needles in the crowns) killed five wildland firefighters. Although this hazard has resulted in relatively few deaths, and only one has occurred since 1992, the risk of death or injuries from falling snags remains a serious concern.

The deterioration of forest health in the Western United States has resulted in enormous areas of forested land becoming susceptible to wildfire. Snags typically have much lower fuel moistures than live green trees and burn more readily. In the process, they often throw spot fires far in advance of the main fire, and often burn through more quickly than green trees, falling with little or no warning.

The risk of injuries from falling snags increases during the night operational period when visibility is greatly reduced. While the cooler nighttime period is generally a more effective time to gain control on wildfires, the increased risk from unseen falling snags may limit the widespread use of crews at night in areas of dead and dying timber.


Individual Responsibility

All firefighters are ultimately responsible for their own safety and well being. Several areas are totally within the individual’s control.

Physical Fitness

Wildland firefighting requires a high level of fitness that anyone can achieve who is willing to invest an hour a day in a physical-conditioning program such as aerobics, running, or bicycling.

Self Discipline

Whether someone is driving an engine, flying an aircraft, or attacking a wildfire, self-discipline can reduce fatalities. When individuals adhere to Agency policies, standard operating procedures, driving laws, work/rest cycles, and other guidelines, they help ensure a safe operation and the successful completion of the fire mission.

Training

Training is especially critical in wild-land fire operations. Firefighters need to understand the hazards of steep, winding, unpaved roads; live and dead vegetative fuels whose flammability varies with the season as well as the time of day; and fire behavior that is directly and immediately affected by both the terrain and the weather. Understanding these factors requires specialized training.

Personal Protective Clothing and Equipment

Personal Protective Equipment can help protect firefighters when they find themselves in areas of high radiant heat or direct-flame contact.

An alarming trend of heat stress injuries and fatalities on wildfires is developing. In addition, several wildland agencies are requiring double layering of either Nomex or a Nomex/cotton combination on both the upper and lower torso to increase protection from radiant heat, allowing firefighters to stay closer to the fire for a longer time.

In Australia, the recently completed Project Aquarius looked at the physiological effect of PPE on firefighters, and concluded that the majority of heat stress in a firefighter was internally generated.

The study found that PPE should be "designed to let heat out, not keep heat out."

The deaths of wildland firefighters are tragedies we must strive to prevent. We must not fail to apply the lessons.

Extract reprinted with permission from:

"Wildland Fire Fatalities in the United States 1990 to 1998"
by
Richard Mangan

USDA Forest Service
Technology & Development Program
Missoula, Montana USA
March 1999