Wildfire-related injuries and fatalities are on the rise this season in Georgia and some other states, with sprawling suburban growth, dry conditions and changes in land-use patterns contributing to the problem.
With urban development pushing into rural areas and weather conditions providing dry vegetation that burns more intensely, the states are experiencing a deadlier wildfire season than usual, forest service officials said.
“I just noticed that this year it was just more frequent that either a firefighter or a civilian was getting hurt or killed fighting fires,” said Alan Dozier, chief of forest protection for the Georgia Forestry Commission.
Dozier said when he mentioned this observation at a June meeting of the Southern Group of State Foresters, which is made up of forestry and fire officials from 13 southern states — some others said they had noticed a similar trend in their states.
Exact numbers on wildfire-related deaths and injuries, however, are difficult to pin down because recording methods vary from state to state. In addition, while firefighter deaths and injuries are carefully noted, some states don’t keep track of civilian casualties.
However, in Texas, civilian deaths alone for the current wildfire season are the highest in at least three decades, with 17 reported for the 13-month fire season through May 1, said Mark Stanford, chief of fire operations for the Texas Forest Service. Neighboring Arkansas also has reported a slight increase in firefighter injuries.
“This fire season that we’re still in actually started in April 2005, and it’s still going,” Stanford said. “I’ve been doing this 28 years and I’ve never seen anything like that. This is an anomaly.”
A fire season is a period during which the long-term weather conditions — dry and windy — are conducive to fueling a fire. There is usually a break in the fire season in the wetter months when vegetation is too green to burn. Sometimes, however, the necessary conditions are met for a longer period and a fire season can last for over a year.
In Georgia, Dozier said three civilians have died and about 20 have been injured by wildfires so far this year. He said the number of injuries is about four times higher than normal so far this year. From 1997 to 2005, the state’s injury rate was one per 2,043 fires, whereas this year it’s been one for every 483 fires.
In nearly every case, he said, the landowner was burning some sort of debris when the fire got out of control. Dozier said civilian casualties may be on the rise because people who accidentally set fires try to put them out on their own instead of immediately calling authorities for help.
He cited an example in east Georgia’s McDuffie County where a man was burning a pile of leaves when it spread to his house. He was trapped under the collapsing carport while trying to put out the fire and died. In another case, a man in Bacon County was burning off a field when the fire got away from him and he was killed while trying to extinguish it.
In Texas, Stanford said, four people fleeing raging wildfires by car were burned to death when they abandoned their vehicles and tried to outrun the fire. Five more people were killed in a multi-car accident caused by smoke obscuring the road.
People need to know their limitations, Dozier said, and let professionals do the firefighting.
A surprising number of people don’t properly prepare before setting a debris fire, he added. They don’t take care to properly secure the area before starting to prevent the fire from escaping. Dozier advised starting with a small fire and add to it gradually instead of lighting a large pile all at once.
Very dry conditions throughout the South are the main culprit for the fires. Gene Madden, safety officer for the Florida Division of Forestry and chairman of a national committee that deals with wildland fire safety issues, said the southern U.S. has had “a significant amount of wildfire activity” recently.
He said that anytime there is an increase in wildfire activity there is a corresponding increase in the risk of personal injury or structural damage, but he said it was too early to tell yet whether the rate or injury or death from wildfires was significantly higher this year on a regional or national level.
Fire officials in South Carolina and Alabama said they have not seen any deaths or serious injuries caused by wildfires this year. And Robin Bible of the Tennessee Division of Forestry said the number of casualties has been consistent with the average for the last few years.
Ralph Crawford of the Florida Division of Forestry said his state has seen a slight increase in wildfire-related injuries this year over the past few years. But he said that the last few years have had unusually low numbers of fires, and the rise this year could be due to a return to normal levels of fire activity.
Fire officials also cite other factors for the injuries and deaths. Once-rural areas throughout the South are becoming more densely-populated, which means that any fires that break out are more likely to cause structural damage and casualties.
When Stanford first started working as a fire official in Texas, he said most wildfires were isolated incidents in rural or wooded areas. An analysis carried out by his office on 21,000 wildfires in Texas between January 1, 2005 and the end of May this year showed that is no longer the case.
“One of the most interesting statistics that we have developed from analysis on this fire season is that 85 percent of the fires are within two miles of a community,” he said.
Modern farm practices are another factor, Stanford said. In the past, ranchers often overgrazed their land, leaving little fuel tofeed a fire. Now, fields are rotated more often, which is better for the land and animals but allows grass to get longer and easier to burn.
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