VERMONT WILDFIRE PREVENTION HISTORY
Traditionally, the State of Vermont has not had a high occurrence of large fires although individual fires of several thousand acres have burned in the past. On the average, Vermont has 200-400 fires per year with an average size of 1.5 – 2 acres. Nearly fifty percent of these fires are started by debris burning that is failed to be contained. Vermont’s forest fire organization reflects its fire situation.
The Town Forest Fire Warden program is the backbone of the wildland fire program in Vermont. When the town forest fire warden system started, Vermont was mostly rural and roughly 40% forested. Agriculture and logging were the primary industries. Thousands of acres of forested land, often recently logged, burned annually due to remote, contiguous forest stands primarily consisting of softwoods, unregulated logging practices, lack of early detection and quick response, and little knowledge of safe burning practices. A particularly devastating fire season in 1903 prompted the Vermont legislature to create the town forest fire warden system the following year. The initial intent of the warden system was to eliminate the destruction to the forests from fire by providing forest fire control at the local level. The 1904 law authorized the first selectmen in each town to be appointed as the fire warden.
The Town Forest Fire Warden program has evolved over the years. Early on, fire wardens responded to and suppressed fires instead of focusing their energies on prevention and educating the public on safe burning practices. The law requiring a burning permit for all burning during non-snow months was not part of the original forest fire laws. The need for a burning permit requirement was recognized in the 1920’s but the law was not enacted until 1939.
Fire wardens today spend the majority of their time preventing fires in their towns by regulating open burning, issuing burning permits, and educating townspeople on safe burning practices. They still frequently respond to wildland fires but, keep fires small with the help of their local volunteer fire departments, quick response and better training.
The creation of the forest fire warden program, early detection and quick response by volunteer fire departments, and public education and awareness has kept fire occurrence low. Fires that do ignite tend to remain small. The average fire size in 1908 was 150 acres. A steady decline in average fire size has continued throughout the years. Today an average size wildland fire in Vermont is under 2 acres.
easiest wildland fire to deal with is the one that never gets started. Most every burning permit issued represents a fire ignited under safe burning conditions with little chance for escape. Annually, Vermont’s town fire wardens issue 20,000 burning permits. Issuing permits and interacting with the public is the single most effective fire prevention activity in the state. It would be difficult to determine the number of fires that are prevented simply by a fire warden’s common sense and local knowledge of current conditions.
Fire wardens have the authority to NOT issue burning permits when weather and fuel conditions are too hazardous for safe burning. Wardens are encouraged to use local newspapers and radio stations to advise the public of periods of high fire danger or for local procedures for obtaining burning permits. Also, the permit system allows the wardens to educate the public on safe burning practices, i.e. keeping the fire small, having water and hand tools nearby, never leaving a fire unattended.
The State’s role in fire prevention activities involves administering the Town Forest Fire Warden Program and fire laws involving the issuance of burning permits. The State also provides the Smokey Bear suit and prevention materials to towns and the wardens and fire departments carrying out prevention programs. Smokey programs for school children are provided when requested.
The Forest Protection program has partnered with the Vermont Rural Fire Protection Task Force in recent years on several prevention projects. One project strives to enhance our rural fire protection capabilities by promoting Firewise concepts and defensible space adapted to fit Vermont’s unique needs. Firewise issues, like ensuring new road and bridge construction are wide enough for emergency vehicles to access homes, proper signage to locate homes, etc. are being introduced to volunteer fire departments through "Rural Fire Protection" day workshops. The Vermont Rural Fire Protection Task Force had a scale model built to illustrate a "fire-wise and fire-foolish" neighborhood. The model depicts a mirror image of the same neighborhood and addresses fire protection issues of concern. The model has been displayed at numerous events throughout the State.
The State and the Task Force are also assisting Towns in the development of Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPP). CWPP’s are developed collaboratively between local, state and federal entities. Communities are evaluated for inhabited areas at risk, forested areas containing critical infrastructure and other at risk areas. Local priorities are established including reduction of fuel, reduction of structural ignitability and improving fire response capabilities. The goal is to reduce the risk from wildfire on local communities.