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Wildland Firefighter Fatalities in the United States: 1990-2006

Common Denominators for Wildland Firefighter Fatalities

In the mid-1970s, fire researcher Carl Wilson identified four common denominators of fire behavior that caused fatalities and near-misses on wildland fires. These four common denominators have been cited for decades in fire safety training, in the "Fireline Handbook" (PMS No. 410–1), and in the "Incident Response Pocket Guide" (PMS No. 461).

Based on my analysis of 310 fire fatalities during wildland fire operations from 1990 to 2006, I believe that it is time to consider some 21st-century common denominators to help reduce wildland firefighter fatalities.

21st-Century Common Denominators for Wildland Firefighter Fatalities

As the major causes of firefighter fatalities shift, additional factors need to be considered:

  1. Firefighters are most likely to die in an aircraft accident. Before every flight, fire managers must ask, "Is this flight essential?" and "Is everyone onboard essential to the mission?"

  2. Firefighters are nearly as likely to die in a vehicle accident as in an aircraft accident. Driving too fast for the conditions, failing to wear seat belts, rushing to a fire, and driving home while exhausted from firefighting kill firefighters.

  3. Firefighters can reduce their risk of dying from heart attacks on the job by staying fit, maintaining their body weight, and having regular medical checkups.

  4. Unexpected events such as falling snags, rolling rocks, downed power lines, and lightning strikes cause more than 8 percent of fatalities during wildland fire fighting operations. Firefighters and fire managers can reduce fatalities by learning to expect these unexpected events.

More than 20 percent of fatalities during wildland firefighting operations continue to occur in burnovers. Carl Wilson's original common denominators are just as important in the 21st century as they were in the 20th.

Carl Wilson's Common Denominators of Fire Behavior on Tragedy Fires

There are four major common denominators of fire behavior on fatal and near-fatal fires. Such fires often occur:

  1. On relatively small fires or deceptively quiet areas of large fires.

  2. In relatively light fuels, such as grass, herbs, and light brush.

  3. When there is an unexpected shift in wind direction or wind speed.

  4. When fire responds to topographic conditions and runs uphill. Alignment of topography and wind during the burning period should always be considered a trigger point to re-evaluate strategy and tactics.