We have been tracking the fire occurrence stats provided by the National Interagency Fire Center for several years. It is clear that the average size of fires has been increasing since 1970 while the average number of fires is decreasing.
We are having fewer, but larger fires. While the population in the country continues to grow, a person might think that the number of fires would increase. But some of the other factors that come into play are fire prevention programs and better technology for preventing fires.
There will be debate about why fires are larger. Climate change will be first on many people’s minds, but we must also consider the build-up of fuels as a result of fire suppression over the last 100 years. The chickens are coming home to roost.
This increase in fire size comes in spite of better management and technology in reporting fires, communications, water handling, incident management, and dispatching.
But better technology and management have their limits when it comes to putting out a massive fire. Large wind or fuel driven fires can only be followed by firefighters. We can chip away at the flanks or suppress the heel, but we can’t stop the forward progress of a raging fire until something changes…. the weather or the fuel. Or, as proven by Bill Molumby’s incident management team on the Indians fire east of Big Sur this summer, you have the luxury of time, distance, and very little private land, and you can backfire or burnout miles ahead of the fire.
The glamorous toys that politicians and extremist talk radio hosts clamor for (I’m talking to YOU, Roger Hedgecock and San Diego) such as water-scooping air tankers and night flying helicopters have their use, but they are totally ineffective in strong winds, when we are most likely to be losing homes and citizens. It can be too dangerous for pilots to fly under those conditions, and the retardant and water that is dropped is completely dispersed before it hits the ground.