Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history”. When looking forward into the future of firefighting, observing past historical fire events helps to illuminate where the future lies with new technological advancements and suppression methodologies. Firefighting will continue to evolve and hopefully continue to lessen fire related fatalities and injuries.
In California, we recently had one of the most deadly and destructive wild land fires known as the Camp Fire. As the world sat and watched the devastation over social media and news outlets, everyone saw firefighters from all around the world come together to try to extinguish the fire and save as many people as they could in the town of Paradise, California. The firefighters swarmed to the scene in helicopters, airplanes, trucks, and engines working to suppress and contain the 150,000 acres burning over approximately two weeks. After watching the suppression efforts and the coordination of thousands of firefighters, one could not help but realize how far the firefighting industry has come and where it is moving towards in the future.
Looking back at fire related events throughout history brings perspective and reasoning behind the evolution and progression of firefighting. When conducting a search on the top historical wild land fires in the United States history, the Great Fire of 1910 is recorded as the largest single fire event. The Great Fire of 1910 burned 3 million acres of land in Idaho, Montana, and Washington. The year of 1910 had an abnormally large amount of growth in the forests due to the fall and winter months containing rain; however, the spring and summer months were dry and uncharacteristically warm. Therefore, the fuel was dry and ready to burn, which contributed to the amount of fires sparked that summer. The Great Fire of 1910 was actually hundreds of smaller fires from sparks growing into one large blaze after the hurricane-force winds started. This fire killed at least 78 firefighters.
For Californians, those circumstances sound familiar-dry, high temperatures, and abundance of growth throughout the state. For the last several years, California has had wild land fires that have broken out that have been the costliest and most destructive fires in the history of California. The Mendocino Complex Fire burned 459,000 acres and cost approximately $257 million. The Camp Fire decimated the entire city of Paradise, California within hours of the fire starting. The Camp Fire killed 86 people, destroyed 18,804 structures, and caused $16.5 billion dollars in damage. The fire forced hundreds of people to flee and escape as the hurricane-force winds pushed through the forests and mountains.
While the Great Fire of 1910 and the Camp Fire had similar weather conditions that resulted in acres of land burned and fatalities, the two fire events had different suppression efforts. During the Great Fire of 1910 event, the workers from the U.S Forest Service were not capable of keeping up with the hundreds of smaller fires that had started August 20th and grew into the inferno it became. Technology and resources were much more limited at that time and knowledge about wild land fires and fire suppression were inadequate. The outcome of the Great Fire of 1910 was that the fire event helped shape the U.S Forest Service into what it is today due to the government’s understanding of the importance of maintaining and managing the forests throughout the United States. The U.S Forest Service was given larger budgets and fighting wild land fires would forever change. With time and research after past structure and wildland fires such as the Great Fire of 1910, the firefighting industry has made big strides and improvements in prevention, suppression, and safety.
The technology, education, and training for the firefighters has changed and advanced drastically since the Great Fire of 1910 and those advancements have led to more success in containing and extinguishing these extreme fires. When the Camp Fire started November 8, 2018, firefighters were not prepared for how large and fast the fire grew; however, resources were sent, firefighters were dispatched, and air and land suppression, and rescue efforts started immediately. The 158,000 acres fire was contained with minimal injuries to firefighters. As wild land fires are on a trend to creating more destruction every year, it is imperative to identify the needs for the future within the firefighting industry.
Many public agencies are continuously striving to address previous issues within a fire event to improve responses not just to wild land events, but structure fires and rescues as well. Research projects within burn cells and controlled environments are helping the industry learn more about suppression techniques that will extinguish fires quicker and safer. The Great Fire of 1910 was slowed and suppressed only with the help of the weather changing. The result of this fire created a loss of millions of acres, structures, and 87 fatalities. In contrast, the Camp Fire was extinguished efficiently and as quickly as possible with simultaneous rescue and recovery efforts that stretched from volunteers to first responders. Most emergency teams have now established a standard to meet post-incidents to review and evaluate the event and what improvements could be made so the next event is managed better. Additionally, firefighting is moving into a time period where new technology is progressing rapidly and will shape the future of fire prevention, safety, and suppression. Private companies are working to find different extinguishing methods that will use less water and are more portable such as an “electrical wave blaster” or “sonic fire extinguishers” that displaces oxygen around flames. Drone technology has moved into the firefighting industry as not just a documentation tool, but thermal imaging cameras are being attached and utilized to identify thermal hotspots and communicate to incident commanders the areas that need focus in extinguishment. Helicopters and planes are being used as tools to help monitor and surveil wildland areas and target those areas with water and flame retardant as needed. Robots are being developed to enter unstable structures and aid in putting water in areas that firefighters cannot get to. The myriad of issues that arise with wildland and structure fires will be reduced and citizens and firefighters will remain safer throughout fire incidences as time moves forward.
Past historical fire events, like the Great Fire of 1910, show the impact and results when the firefighting industry does not have the technology, up to date knowledge, and resources available to properly fight fires and remain safe. The firefighting industry has grown and improved many of the needs from these past fire incidents. Other countries outside the United States are already using state-of-the-art technology such as helmets that project digitally what the structure looks like onto the helmets as a display and aid the firefighters in finding their way around fire scenes and water jetpacks that are being employed to make extinguishment easier and faster using waterways in their cities. As the firefighting industry continues to progress, it will evolve and further tackle other obstacles in fire prevention and suppression to ensure safety for all.
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