Entrapments is the fourth leading cause of wildland firefighter fatalities

For the last several days we have been writing about fatalities on wildland fires —  the annual numbers and trends going back to 1910 and some thoughts about how to reduce the number of entrapments (also known as burnovers). Often when we think about these accidents, what automatically comes to mind are the entrapments. When multiple firefighters are killed at the same time it can be etched into our memory banks to a greater extent than when one person is killed in a vehicle rollover or is hit by a falling tree. Much of the nation mourned when 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were overrun and killed by the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona in 2013. A fatal heart attack on a fire does not receive nearly as much attention.

When we discuss ways to decrease deaths on fires, for some of us our first thoughts are how to prevent entrapments, myself included. One reason is that it can seem they are preventable. Someone made a decision to be in a certain location at a specific time, and it’s easy to think that if only a different decision had been made those people would still be alive. Of course it is not that simple. Perfect 20/20 hindsight is tempting for the Monday Morning Incident Commander. Who knows — if they had been there with access to the same information they may have made the same series of decisions.

An analysis of the data provided by NIFC for the 440 fatalities from 1990 through 2014 shows that entrapments are the fourth leading cause of fatalities. The top four categories which account for 88 percent are, in decreasing order, medical issues, aircraft accidents, vehicle accidents, and entrapments. The numbers for those four are remarkably similar, ranging from 23 to 21 percent of the total. Number five is hazardous trees at 4 percent followed by the Work Capacity Test, heat illness, and electrocution, all at around 1 percent. A bunch of miscellaneous causes adds up to 4 percent.

NIFC’s data used to separate air tanker crashes from accidents involving other types of aircraft such as lead planes and helicopters. But in recent years they began lumping them all into an “aircraft accident” category, so it is no longer possible to study them separately. This is unfortunate, since the missions are completely different and involve very dissimilar personnel, conflating firefighters who are passengers in the same category as air tankers having one- to seven-person crews — from Single Engine Air Tankers to military MAFFS air tankers.

The bottom line, at least for this quick look at the numbers, is that in addition to trying to mitigate the number of entrapments, we should be spending at least as much time and effort to reduce the numbers of wildland firefighters who die from medical issues and accidents in vehicles and aircraft.

Wildfire fatality trends

Last week Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack reported that 13 wildland firefighters lost their lives in the line of duty in 2015. That was an increase from 2014 when there were 10 fatalities, and was about a third of the 34 that were killed in 2013 — that year included the deaths of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots near Yarnell, Arizona.

The National Interagency Fire Center has statistics about line of duty deaths going back to 1910. During that time, according to their numbers, 1,099 firefighters died.

wildland firefighter Fatalities 1960-2015

In looking at the 105 years of NIFC data there appears to be an increasing trend. The figures below are the average number of fatalities each year for the indicated time periods:

1910-2015: 10.5
1910-1959: 6.9
1960-1989: 10.2
1990-2015: 17.0

One likely explanation for the apparent increase is that 80 to 105 years ago probably not all fatalities were reported or ended up in a centralized data base, especially those that occurred on state or locally protected lands. Even if we only look at the figures since 1960, as in the chart above, it still shows a steep increase over those 55 years.

It is possible in the last 25 years the reporting of fatalities and the collection of the data has been somewhat more consistent and complete. The chart below covers that period, from 1990 through 2015, and has a slight downward trend, which would be even more obvious if not for the 19-person crew that passed away in 2013 on the Yarnell Hill Fire.

wildland firefighter Fatalities 1990-2015

I can’t prove that there was under-reporting of wildland firefighter fatalities during most of the 20th century, but if a firefighter was killed on a vegetation fire in Missouri in 1921, I can see how that statistic may not have made it into the data base that is now maintained at NIFC.

So what does all this mean? Individuals can look at the same batch of statistics and develop vastly different interpretations. However, it would not be prudent to assume that the fatality rate almost tripled from the first part of the 105-year period to the last 25 years. There are several ways to analyze data like this. The least complex is to look at the trend of the raw numbers of fatalities year to year. A more complex and meaningful method would be to determine the fatality RATE. For example, the fatalities per million hours spent traveling to and working on fires. That would be impossible to ferret out during most of the last 105 years. But the firefighting agencies should be able to find a way to begin collecting this information, if they don’t have it already.

If the fatality and serious injury rates were calculated over a multi-year period, it should illustrate the effectiveness of a risk management program. Otherwise, the simple number of deaths each year might be affected to an unknown degree by the number of acres burned. Other factors could also affect the numbers, such as fire intensity influenced by fuel treatment programs, fire history, drought, climate change, or arson.

Should firefighting agencies have specific goals about serious injuries and fatalities? Is there an acceptable number? Is 5 a year too many? Is 15 too many? Is it stupid to have a goal of zero fatalities —  or any number?

The chart below superimposes the number of fatalities over the acres burned in the United States from 1990 through 2015, but it does not include Alaska since many fires there are not suppressed, or they are only suppressed in areas where they threaten structures or people. In 2015 more acres burned in Alaska than all of the other states combined.

wildfire Fatalities and acres 1990-2015

years with 20 or more wildland firefighter fatalities

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UPDATED January 17, 2016

One of our loyal readers, Bean, has been thinking about this issue and figured that since the amount of firefighters’ exposure to risk is necessary in order to calculate trends, perhaps parameters other than acres burned could be correlated with the number of fatalities. Data that is publicly available as far back as 1990 or 1994 includes mobilizations of incident management teams, crews, overhead, helicopters, air tankers, air attack ships, infrared aircraft, MAFFS air tankers, caterers, military firefighters, and shower units. I considered all of those and concluded that the number of crews mobilized would come the closest to serving as a proxy for accurate data of how many hours all firefighters spent traveling to and working on fires.

Data for crew mobilizations is available from 1990 through 2014. I divided the number of crews mobilized by the number of fatalities for each year and called this the Fatality/Crews Mobilized Index.

wildfire Fatalities and Crews Mobilized Index 1990-2004

Like the earlier chart comparing fatalities to acres burned, this analysis also shows a decreasing trend in the last 25 years. In a comment posted January 17, Kevin9 said the earlier acres/fatalities analysis is “spiky”.  This newer crews mobilized/fatalities data also has spikes (especially in 1997 and 2009) but not quite to the degree the earlier chart had. During the 25-year period, 1997 had the least number of acres burned and crews mobilized, but still had 10 fatalities. The second lowest number of crews mobilized occurred in 2009 and there were 15 fatalities that year.

As an experiment, knowing that there were mass casualty events in 1994 and 2013 (14 and 19 fatalities respectively), just to see what the effects were, I changed the data in those two years to the average for the last 25 years, which is 17, and there was no major change in the trend line, except it was a little lower across the entire range.

It’s been a long time since I took statistics courses, but here’s what I came up with when analyzing the Fatality/Crews Mobilized Index data:

  • Standard deviation: 0.019
  • Mean: 0.026
  • Coefficient of variation: 0.770
  • Variance: 0.00037

2015: Second fewest acres burned in Arkansas in last six years

Arkansas wildfire stats 6 years

The Arkansas Forestry Commission released their statistics for the number of acres burned in the state during the last six years. It turned out that the 14,652 acres in 2015 was the second fewest during that period, well below the average of 25,669.

National survey – the use of prescribed fire

The National Association of State Foresters and the Coalition of Prescribed Fire Councils recently completed their second national survey of all 50 states, asking questions about how prescribed fire is used, managed, and reported. They found that after sorting the responses into three regions, Northeast, Southeast, and West, 69 percent of all acres burned were in the Southeast in 2014.

The top impediments to accomplishing their prescribed fire objectives were, in decreasing order, weather, capacity, and air quality/smoke management.

Below is an excerpt from the report, and below that some graphics. (click on the images to see larger versions)

One significant finding was an increase in the number of states that offer education and training to certify prescribed fire managers. The number of states increased to 24, a 41% increase over the 2012 report. This is an impressive statistic, and one that will hopefully build capacity of trained fire managers. During the same period, the number of prescribed fire councils grew by 24%, bringing the total to 31 councils in 27 states.

prescribed fire activity by region

prescribed fire acres by state

States tracking Rx fire activity

Top impediment prescribed burning

Wildfire season 2015: very busy in some areas, slow in others

Chelan Fires
First Creek Fire at Lake Chelan, Washington, 2015. USFS photo by Kari Greer..
As the 2015 wildfire season draws to a close in most areas of the United States, preliminary numbers for acres burned show at first glance that it has been very busy. According to statistics from the National Interagency Fire Center, as of December 4 9,798,953 acres have burned in the country. That is the second only to 2006 when 9,873,429 acres were blackened. It is possible that when the final 2015 tally is in, this year might creep into the number one spot.

But if we drill down into the statistics we find that more than half of those acres were in Alaska, with 5.1 million acres, more than quadruple their average of 1.2 million and the most acres burned since 2004 (6.6 million). Fire management in Alaska is very different from the rest of the country. Most of the huge state is very sparsely populated, making it possible for land managers to allow some large fires to burn virtually unchecked except where they might impact a structure or village. In those areas “point protection” is the key — establishing firelines, sprinkler systems, or burnout operations for relatively small areas, leaving the rest of the fire untouched.

In the other 49 states (we like to call them the “lower 49 states”) 4.7 million acres have burned so far in 2015, about a million less than the average of 5.7 million acres.

We don’t have the individual totals for each of the lower 49 states yet for this year but the impression is that firefighters were very busy in northern California, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and parts of Montana, while it was much slower than average for the other western states.

Concerns about the drought in California had many wildfire organizations sitting on pins and needles as the summer began. Los Angeles County usually contracts for two water scooping air tankers for their fall fire season which often has large fires pushed by very strong Santa Ana winds accompanied by single-digit humidities. Angst about the drought-desiccated fuels caused LA County to double their contracted air tanker fleet from two to four. While the northern part of the state had numerous large fires, the last half of the summer farther south was relatively benign, fire-wise.

Rain across much of the northwest in early September knocked out most of the large fires that had been chewing up acres in August. Even southern California received rain off and on in the fall. Orange County near Los Angeles got almost two inches of rain on September 15. Officials were dealing with flooding in Newport Beach and telling residents where they could obtain sandbags, something very rare in that area, but especially in September, the dry season.