Wildland fires are becoming more frequent and more severe. For example, the eight largest wildfires in California history all happened in the last five years. In that time, wildland fires burned 10+ million acres in the state, killed hundreds of Californians, and destroyed at least 32,000 homes.
As a nation, we are desperately short of wildland firefighters. Roughly one third of all U.S. wildlands are federally managed. But in the most fire-prone regions (like Idaho, California, Oregon, and Alaska), more than half of all wildland is federally managed. Meanwhile, the entire federal wildland firefighting service has only about 18,700 employees (including management and support personnel) for the entire nation. (For comparison, the federal government employs more HR managers than wildland firefighters.)
Despite ongoing efforts—including innovative wildland fire training programs and incentive packages—there is still a critical shortage of wildland firefighters. The federal government went into the summer of 2022 staffed at just 65% to 70% in many high-risk areas.
Fortunately—although it stretches resources thin—systems of interagency cooperation among state, local, volunteer, and DoD brigades are staying ahead of the wildfires.
Addressing the National Wildland Firefighter Shortage with Interagency Cooperation
For example, in October 2022, local volunteer firefighters responded to a wildland fire near Emerado, North Dakota, after a planned burn on conservation reserve program (CRP) land got out of control. Ultimately, a team effort by firefighters from Emerado, Manvel, and Thompson extinguished the fire.
“These types of calls get very taxing on the firefighters themselves,” explained Jake Lanes, the assistant fire chief for Emerado Rural Volunteer Fire Department. “CRP [grassland] has a tendency to lay down on top of itself, creating a pocket that traps the heat and once the wind picks up, it’ll reignite the fire.”
That’s precisely what happened on October 17: In the early hours of the morning following the planned burn, the CRP grassfire reignited, quickly expanding to become a 400-acre wildland fire threatening homes, livestock, and personal property. Local teams responded quickly, but soon realized that swift winds were driving the reignited blaze faster than they had anticipated.
Ultimately, 17 base firefighters from 319th Civil Engineer Squadron fire department on Grand Forks Air Force Base aided local volunteer firefighters in battling a rapidly expanding blaze. “I can tell you that, hearing the other agencies over the radio saying that they’re en route, that they’re responding, was a relief,” Lanes said.
This sort of mutual aid among local and federal entities is often made possible by advancements in simulation-based wildfire training. “This was my first actual fire,” explained Airman Matthew Gurule, a firefighter with the 319th Civil Engineer Squadron. “I’ve done lots of training and fought fires in simulators, but this was my first time responding to the real thing.” Nonetheless, Airman Gurule found that his simulation-based training translated to a confident and effective incident response—even with no prior real-world experience to draw on.
Simulation-Based Wildland Firefighter Training
Simulation training offers an otherwise unavailable opportunity to prepare for low-frequency/high-risk incidents (like wildland fires) and to build the unique skills required for successful interagency and mutual-aid operations.
FAAC has an established track record for delivering effective, realistic, and accurate firefighting simulations. FAAC simulators accurately model fire behavior (including wildland fires), weather, and other factors that complicate these incidents. These simulators also network and interoperate, so that it is possible to model a complex incident command system and train on broad scenarios demanding a multi-agency response.
With FAAC’s simulation-based training firefighters can prepare themselves to respond to wildland fire and other emergency incidents in a strategic and tactical way. More importantly, they improve their mental and emotional preparedness while building confidence in those skills. Through the use of virtual simulations, users can practice responding to different types of wildland fires and environments, from grasslands and forested areas to wildland-urban interface (WUI) communities where firefighting is complicated by the mix of wildland and urban development.