Putting Wildland Firefighter Fatalities Into Perspective

Putting Wildland Firefighter Fatalities Into Perspective

When compared with structural firefighters, career wildland firefighters die at a higher rate, and the rate is statistically significant. Career wildland firefighters make up only 5% of the total number of career firefighters in the United States. Ninety-five percent of career firefighting forces are structure firefighters. Based upon annual reports from the U.S. Fire Administration from 1994 through 2013, wildland firefighters make up approximately 27% of the total number of fatalities. There were a total of 859 fatalities, with 237 of these deaths being career wildland firefighters. This represents wildland firefighters dying at a rate of 6 times higher than structure firefighters. (Volunteer and seasonal firefighters were not included in these statistics.)

While firefighter safety is considered to be the highest priority for structure and wildland fire, by its very nature structure fire appears to be more dangerous. Structure firefighters have jobs that include entering burning buildings – residential and commercial, rescuing and providing medical treatment to individuals who have been trapped and injured, and responding to hazardous materials fires. With some notable exceptions, wildland firefighters do not share these types of dangers and responsibilities. Wildland firefighters are trained to prevent the undesirable spread of wildland fires from the wildland into areas where fire can endanger lives, property and other identified values at risk.

While differences in types and duration of exposure experienced by wildland and structural firefighters can be endlessly debated, the questions that need to be answered are:

  •  Why are Wildland Firefighters dying at a significantly higher rate than Structure Firefighters?
  • What are Structure Firefighters doing to help control the risk that can kill them?
  • Can similar safety measures be applied within Wildland Firefighting?

And most importantly – What are Wildland Firefighters protecting that is worth dying for?

building fire

Versus

firefighters 

9 thoughts on “Putting Wildland Firefighter Fatalities Into Perspective

  1. I don’t understand why volunteer and seasonal fire fighters would be left out of the statistics. The biggest difference that I can note between wild land and structure is equipment. Structure fire fighters are much better equipped as far as protective gear, oxygen and water supplies. Wild land fire fighters can not be expected to haul that much gear all over a blazing forest. The question might be how to develop better light weight and breathable protective gear for wild land use. Also during a structure fire they is almost always someone monitoring every detail of the situation which could be impossible on a large wild land incident. Except most fatalities occur on smaller fires. Which could mean the details are not being evaluated well enough as a whole.

    • Teresa,
      Thank you for your commentr and I am sorry about the delay in responding. Volunteer FDs were ommited, but not seasonal woldland FFs. The reason is that the equipment and training standards can vary widely with VFDs, but are more closely regulated with NFPA and NWCG standards. The attempt was to compare the safety records of these different types of ffs with as many variables being as equal as possible.

  2. What percentage of wildland fires are WUI/interface fires, and, as more homes are being built in or adjacent to wildlands, is this percentage increasing? Certainly the Esperanza, Yarnell Hill, Black Forest, and Waldo Canyon fires had interface elements with homes and lives at risk and civilian lives lost in the two Colorado Springs fires and embers falling on civilians as they were belatedly evacuated from Yarnell Hill. And South Canyon/Storm King was very near a town. If WUI fires are an increasing proportion, is wildland fire fighting training, equipment, and management keeping up with this as a risk factor to fire fighters?

  3. I would suggest that organizational culture, organizational safety culture and safety related behaviors need to be changed in these organizations. I write about this in the Wildland Fire Service because of a need for change. I suggest you cannot compare yourself to an urban department because the WUI and Forest and urban areas are completely different in context. What we need to work at is how to reduce fatalities and injuries overall. This takes organizational change. Why does the US have an annual fatality rate of 10 fatalities per year on average (since 1900) and Canada has an annual rate of 2 per year on average in the wildland fire service? There has been a linear increase of fatalities since the 1990’s in the US from the statistics that are reported. Why do federal risk managers/safety officers think there is no need to do research in this area? There are many questions and no one wants to answer them because they be wrong in the approach. Even the Tri-Data and McDonald and Shadow studies concluded safety needed improved upon. I have not seen any improve to speak of because of the statistics reported.

    Also a study by Pessemier (2012) and Pessemier & England (2012) studied the safety culture in urban departments and I was using his research method to extend it to the wildland fire service. So when one thinks of comparing the wildland fire service and urban service you talk about apples and oranges unless you get down to the organizational culture, safety culture and safety related behaviors in both for a more accurate comparison.

    • You are right about that. The only thing that can be compared is the flame and even that is different. I would like to see some of those studies on fire fatalities in Canada, do they do investigation reports also? I am very interested in reading those if they exist. I am wondering how their training differs than ours. And how their attitudes on fire safety differs. It sounds like a great place to gain some much needed knowledge and advise. I am a little shocked if the comparisons have not been studied already.

  4. Structure firefighters don’t fight as many fires as the wildland guys. I bet on an average season for an IHC, a crewmember spends more man hours fighting fire than a structure guy his entire career. A lot more. Is this factored into your statistics? Would be more effective to compare base rates. Hours worked per fatality.

  5. Rob,

    You make a good observation, but let’s look at this from a different perspective. The urban and volunteer departments make up over 85% of the million plus firefighters in the U.S., so man hours you are possibly wrong in your assumption. With only 35,000 – 40,000 are wildland fire they do account for a number of hours and I do not have the statistical data on them, but by simply looking at the numbers difference in firefighters between urban/rural and wildland I would suspect the urban/rural departments have many more man hours fighting fire than wildland. This is simply a numbers crunching opinion and not backed up from a solid reliable data. I do understand where you are coming from on this point though. What I do know is approximately 100 firefighters die each year on average in the U.S. and in 2013 only 13% were from wildland firefighting activities according to the USFA.

    • Dan,
      Where is the statistic of 35,000 – 40,000 wildland firefighters found? I need it for a report for school. Thanks for your help.

      • There are around 17,000 seasonal federal, 11,000 contractors, and the rest come from the States plus CAL FIRE and other urban fire departments that have some component of wildland firefighters. There is not hard and fast number, you have to dig each year to figure it out, but for statistical purposes. I use 30,000 per year which maybe shy of the exact number. In other words it varies. It also depends on how bad a fire season they have.

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