Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 24, 2009

South Carolina fire is four miles wide

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on April 24, 2009

“The largest Grand Strand wildfire in more than 30 years continues to burn this morning, creating billows of smoke so thick that roads are closed and visibility is near zero in areas north of Myrtle Beach. Officials say it might be days before the fire, which destroyed 70 homes and damaged 100 more early Thursday, can be brought under control,” reports the Charlotte Observor.

At about 7:30 Friday morning the SC Forestry Commission estimated the fire was about 40 percent contained.  The Commission’s spokesperson added, “that could all go out the window” if winds start blowing Friday.

In a landmark study, Fire in the Earth System, published today in Science Magazine (membership required) a team of twenty-two scientists argue, “Fire influences global ecosystem patterns and processes, including vegetation distribution and structure, the carbon cycle, and climate. Although humans and fire have always coexisted, our capacity to manage fire remains imperfect and may become more difficult in the future as climate change alters fire regimes.

According to a Scientific American review of the study, “‘This is a critical move away from the thinking that fires are just a disaster,’ says David Bowman, a professor of forest ecology at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, Australia, and a lead author of the report. Taken in isolation, each conflagration can cause massive human, economic and natural devastation, but as a broader force fire wields a much larger power”

SCIAM continues, “Across the globe, fires have been getting larger and stronger. ‘We are witnessing an increasing instance of these megafires,’ says Thomas Swetnam, director of the Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research at the University of Arizona.  This year alone has seen an increase in both the magnitude and deadliness of conflagrations sweeping Australia and the U.S. Southwest. In the past 20 years, the area scorched by fire in the western U.S. was six times greater than in the two decades that preceded it. These infernos are in large part a result of longer, drier summers, which are only poised to get worse with climate change, Swetnam explains.”

Also see a collection of stories from Scientific American on wildfires and the climate.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

April 24, 2009 @ 8:11 am

The struggle between the fire hazard and populations continues. The so-called WildFire/Urban Interface being studied more and more. Perhaps integration of study, reporting and strategy and tactics nationwide will occur after a particular disaster. Not happening yet and the 2.5 Million personnel, both full time (often union) and volunteers continues to remain segmented and stovepiped by jurisdiction, politics and training. Okay suggestion! Let’s make the US Fire Administration be recreated under the Fire Prevention and Control Act of 1974, as amended, and collect together all the various interests after Congressional oversight and testimony of the rival groups, e.g. the National Fire Protection Association, The International Firefighters Association, The National Association of Fire Chiefs, and the Smoke Jumper and wildfire fighters (a very well run fire ops center in Idaho) and really update US policy and practices on the fire hazard. Hey Congress are you paying attention? Oversight by the Science Committees would be a great start. This problem is not going away and will get worse. After all until trees are developed with built in sprinkler systems not likely that human interaction with fire sources and hazards will prevent and suppress what should be prevented and suppressed (and many foresters strongly believe that Smokey the Bear was sending in part the wrong message.) Hey what do I know? After all after destruction by the Homeland Security Act of 2002, the US Fire Administrator position had to be reconstructed by a new statute (subject ot Senate confimation) and the USFA was only administratively restored. Oh and by the way did you know that over 40,000 civilian firefighters are under DOD control with a 20 year and out retirement system. They have an information source in the Defense Fire Protection Association but really totally uncoordinated across the services and within DOD. Example, DOD firefighting on 9/11 when Pentagon hit was almost non-existent and my then county Arlington provided exemplary service after finally being cleared security wise to fight the fire. Let’s stop having speakers promise one thing in their speeches at the Congressional Fire Causcus Dinners on an annual basis and then reversing themselves shortly thereafter. I personally attended two of these dinners (at a tab of $750 per table which I bought to encourage others to pay attention to fire issues even though I operate a really non-profit non-profit) and on both occasions speakers made promised reversed in one case the next morning (Secretary Tom Ridge) and in one case in one week either by undercutting the Fire Service directly or indirectly within a week in testimony before Congress. Rare that the FIRE SERVICE reaches agreement on issues and policies. Again the US should be a leader on fire research, practices, processes, systems and technology and someone should be asking why we are not? The Australians learned some tough lessons recently! Do we know what they are?

Comment by Arnold

April 24, 2009 @ 10:30 am

Why we are not may be due to the history, tradition, and culture of the fire service in this country and the resistance to change that adherence to those traditions drives.

Congress cannot exert enough influence over the fire service to change its culture–it only holds the power of the purse, and that is a small bag since it is not a “national service” but one funded predominately at the local level. So change/evolution will have to come from within the service itself.

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 24, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

Arnold has a point. An entire faction of OMB says the FIRE SERVICE is totally a STATE and LOCAL issue. That might have once been true and they certainly did not leap to the fore in the radiological defense arena forcing the creation of a new civil defense apparatus in 1950 (Public Law 81-920). But not now IMO. The principal response force member in this country is a firefighter should there be an act of terrorism. Also more and more national standards are supported and developed for the fire service with the assistance of federal funds and organizations like the former US Fire Administration operating pursuant to the Fire Prevention and Control Act. The last FEMA Administrator and apparently the next one have come out of the FIRE SERVICE. It has nationally assigned missions however inferentially and looms more and more important, particulary with the high degree of training necessary not just for ordinary firefighting (if it is ever ordinary) but for HAZMATS and EMT (a critical part of the public health system). So Arnold chose sides because if you ever need the FIRE SERVICE it is not likely to be as well trained, well equipped or knowledgable (despite what some at OMB think) without federal inputs of money, equipment, standardization, and training. The FIRE SERVICE is even key now in certain highly technical areas not well known to the public. I would permanently authorize a 10-20% federal contrbution to the salaries, maintenance, funding, training of the FIRE SERVICE in the 250 largest municpalities on the basis they are in part a national service while not subject ot formal personnel controls by the feds. They should have been included much more completely but for their leadership in communications interoperabilty issues, protective equipment issues and standardization for the entirety of the public safety sector, and certainly closely integrated with the public health system. Only the factionalization of their Washington lobbies has prevented the FIRE SERCICE from getting the help it needs from Washington and giving Washington the help it needs. So there!

Comment by Arnold

April 24, 2009 @ 4:02 pm

The problem with a back and forth via these comments is that it makes subtle arguments hard.

So I’ll put this out there first: I have nothing against the fire service, their actions on the Hill, or the grants they receive from the federal government. The Fire Services’ work on standards is vital and far reaching.

My two points are that their Hill activity is substantial and focused compared to other public safety/EM/health sectors and that further Congressional funding may not spent in the best manner possible.

Having worked on a project with the EMS community, I can tell you that not just that particular group (who is not all fire, but also includes substantial private and “third service” providers) but others are envious of Fire’s pull on the Hill. You see a poorly focused effort and many others see a powerful lobby (paging Walt and Mearsheimer?).

My point about culture was informed not by firefighting techniques or technology (which I know nothing about, though I’ve heard many other parts of the world have moved beyond what the service in the U.S. brings to bear), but by the medical component. The Fire Administration’s numbers show that the vast majority of fire calls are medical in nature (due to fire prevention efforts driven hard by the fire service for decades). Yet this portion of their portfolio is underfunded by grants in comparison.

Funding is a tough subject to analyze. A small town in Western Massachusetts should be able to have a fire truck to serve its citizens. And that truck may be called upon in mutual aid to help Worcester or Boston. But if that town or the Commonwealth does not wish to provide the funds, at what point should federal fire grants come to play?

In other words, I wonder if the federal government keeps buying fundamental equipment, will local and state governments free ride more and more? For a national security perspective, America’s military power allowed allies to use their money in other areas as we provided them protection from the Soviet Union. In homeland security, many (and I agree with this point) suggest that more and more disaster declarations allow states to grab for federal/FEMA money rather than paying for relatively minor incidents themselves.

So at some point, along with that fire equipment when a fire hydrant breaks will it be declared a disaster with FEMA money drawn upon to fix it?

Federal funding is important and should continue, but requires focus and strategic consideration.

All by way of provoking discussion–not attempting to describe current reality. (In other words I’m not looking to get into a bar fight with any firemen)

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 25, 2009 @ 7:51 am

Hey! Just so you know there are now (compared to the past) many fire women also.

Both HAZMATs and EMT are really almost completely separate from the traditional fire service although housed under that umbrella.

Also almost 45% of call-outs for the fire service are actually EMT calls or so I have heard.

What is interesting about HAZMAT is how EPA and its National Contingency Plan under joint chair with the US Coast Guard is administered down throught the federal system. See EO 12316 as amended by EO 12777 and 40 CFR Part 300 (now under active revision). The HAZMATs personnel know this system cold unlike many EM personnel and NIMS and the NRF. At least the HAZMAT people know who, what, where, when with what money and what training the feds will show up. Wish the same could be said for EM and disasters. And many thanks Arnold for staying tuned. Hoping others follow our civilized discourse.

Comment by Arnold

April 25, 2009 @ 10:58 am

Thanks for pointing out there are many firewomen now as well. Certainly did not mean to exclude them…was just lazy in my writing.

And thanks for the other information you provided as well.

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