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
In the period between 1990 and 1998, 133 individuals died while
involved in wildland fire activities. These deaths occurred on 94
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.
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%).
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 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.
What can we learn from those burnovers?
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.
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
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
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:
Many fire operations take place in steep mountainous terrain
with limited room to maneuver aircraft if problems arise.
Weather during wildfires is often hot and windy, frequently
adversely affecting flight performance.
Rotary wing operations frequently require helicopters to hover
for long periods, reducing the likelihood that the helicopter
can autorotate to a safe landing if engine problems occur.
Helicopter operations are often conducted at or near the maximum
usable weight of the helicopter. In addition, helicopters may
have buckets suspended 25 to 150 feet beneath them on a cable
that may become entangled in trees, snags, or powerlines.
The aircraft operations often occur less than 500 feet above
ground level in heavy smoke where hazards such as trees, snags,
and powerlines may not be clearly visible.
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.
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
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
All firefighters are ultimately responsible for their own safety and
well being. Several areas are totally within the individual’s
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.
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 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
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
USDA Forest Service
Technology & Development Program
Missoula, Montana USA