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Wildfire in New York State

Wildfire is defined as an uncontrolled fire spreading through natural or unnatural vegetation that often has the potential to threaten lives and property if not contained. Wildfires that burn in or threaten to burn buildings and other structures are referred to as wildland urban interface fires. Wildfires include common terms such as forest fires, brush fires, grass fires, wildland urban interface fires, range fires or ground fires. Wildfires do not include those fires, either naturally or purposely ignited, that are controlled for a defined purpose of managing vegetation for one or more benefits. Prescribed fire or controlled burns are common terms for this type of wildland fire. Wildland fire is a term used to describe both wildfire and prescribed fire.

Wildfire in New York is based on the same science and environmental factors as any wildfire in the world. Fuels, weather and topography are the primary factors that determine the natural spread and destruction of every wildfire. New York has large tracts of diverse forest lands, many of which are the result of historic destructive wildfires. Although these destructive fires do not occur on an annual basis, New York's fire history has a cycle of fire occurrence that result in human death, property loss, forest destruction and air pollution.

New York State is 30.9 million acres in size with 18.9 million acres of non federal forested lands. In addition, there is an undetermined amount of open-space non-forested lands with significant wildfire potential. The wetlands of western New York and New York City frequently burn as weather conditions allow. These fires are not only spectacular in their intensity but quite often threaten nearby homes, businesses or improvements becoming wildland-urban interface fires. All of New York's 19.8 million residents are affected by the most serious of wildfires. Smoke and particulate matter from wildfires 500 miles north in Quebec often drifts to urban New York City. Wildfires in the surrounding wildland urban interface of New York City suburbs often do the same leading to much news reporting and attention by public officials.

Responsibilities for Wildfire Control

The Department of Environmental Conservation's Division of Forest Protection ("Forest Ranger Division") is designated New York's lead agency for wildfire mitigation in the state's Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan. It is the policy of the state that local government and emergency services are the first line of defense for emergency response. In the case of wildfire, the local fire department has the primary responsibility (incident command) for the control and containment of wildfires in their jurisdiction. The Forest Ranger Division has a statutory requirement to provide a forest fire protection system for 657 of the 932 townships throughout New York. This area excludes cities and villages and covers 23.5 million acres of land including state-owned lands outside the 657 towns. The Lake Ontario Plains and New York City-Long Island areas are the general areas not included in the statutory protection. During some years, the largest and most destructive wildfires occur on Long Island or in New York City. The Lake Ontario Plains were once New York's most active agricultural lands but much of the area has reverted to hardwood forests. Wildfire occurrence in this area will be collected from fire department reports to evaluate any need to expand statutory responsibilities. Regardless of jurisdiction or location of a wildfire, fire departments and forest rangers have a long history of working together to control the most serious wildfires that occur anywhere in the state.

Wildfire Occurrence

Wildfire occurrence reporting in New York is based on two data sources. The New York State Forest Ranger force has fought fires and retained records since 1891. Over the past 25 years (1993-2017), Division records indicate that rangers suppressed 5,423 wildfires that burned a total of 52,580 acres. This averages 217 fires burning 2,103 acres per year, however, New York does not have a consistent wildfire season. New York's fire history indicates periods of time when wildfires are much more numerous and destructive than the 25-year average would indicate. 1988, 1989, 1991, 1995, 1998, 1999, 2002 and 2008 were all above average years with 11,730 acres burned in 1989 alone. In 2008, a 2,800-acre wildfire occurred in Minnewaska State Park killing approximately 50% of the old growth forest cover in this very popular and scenic park. In 2012, a 992-acre wildfire burned through Long Island's Central Pine Barrens destroying three homes and one fire engine. In 2015, a 2,759-acre wildfire burned from Roosa Gap, Sullivan County to Cragsmoor, Ulster County, threatening 50 residences before being contained. In 2016, the Sam's Point Fire in Ulster County burned 2,028 acres threatening a radio communication tower complex that serves the Lower Hudson Valley and southern Catskill Mountains.

In addition to forest rangers documenting wildfire occurrence, New York's 1,700 fire departments do the same but in a very different format. Data collected by the state Office of Fire Prevention and Control (OFP&C) indicates that from 2003 through 2017, fire departments throughout New York responded to 80,882 wildfires, brush fires, grass fires or other outdoor fires (all natural vegetation fires). Although this averages approximately 5,400 fires per year, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012 and 2016 were above average years with 6,500 or more fires. Fire department data for 2000 through 2012 has been incorporated into the Department's geographical information system (GIS) and several statistical occurrence maps and graphs have been produced. Fire departments do not report fire size but damage assessments may be determined from the data with GIS applications.

Wildfire Causes

According to Forest Ranger Division wildfire occurrence data from 1993 through 2017, 95% of wildfires in New York are caused by humans while lightning is responsible for 5%. Debris burning accounts for 33% of all wildfires, incendiary fires account for 16%, campfires cause 16% and children are responsible for 4%. Smoking, equipment, railroads and 6miscellaneous causes contribute to the remaining 25% of wildfires. Beginning in 2010, New York enacted revised open burning regulations that ban brush burning statewide from March 15 through May 15, a period when 47% of all fire department-response wildfires occur. Forest ranger data indicates that this new statewide ban resulted in 46% fewer spring wildfires caused by debris burning in upstate New York from 2010-2017 when compared to the previous 8-year average. Debris burning has been prohibited in New York City and Long Island for more than 40 years. Since compliance with this regulation is a continuing objective, forest ranger and fire department historical fire occurrence data will serve as a benchmark for analysis of wildfire occurrence. As wildfires caused by debris burning decline through regulatory enforcement, incendiary or arson fires will likely be the primary cause of wildfires in the future. Addressing this issue will require a greater intensity of enforcement than is realized for all other causes combined.

New York's large size, diverse topography and variety of climates require the state be divided into distinct units for describing wildfire potential and risk. Through research and 35 years of wildfire occurrence linked to fire weather indices, New York is divided into 10 fire danger rating areas (FDRAs). FDRAs are defined by areas of similar vegetation, climate and topography in conjunction with agency regional boundaries, National Weather Service fire weather zones, political boundaries, fire occurrence history and other influences. The Forest Ranger Division issues daily fire danger warnings when the fire danger rating is at high or above in one or more FDRAs. The graphic below is an example of a daily fire danger rating message.

Community and Individual Protection from Wildfire

Although fire departments and forest rangers have the most critical roles at controlling wildfires, local communities and residents have the greatest role at preventing fires, loss of life or property damage. Smokey Bear has been a highly successful worldwide symbol of wildfire prevention since 1944. The number of wildfires caused by debris burning, campfires, smoking and children continues to decline due to prevention strategies and behavioral changes. Regardless of prevention strategies, destructive wildfires will continue to occur when weather, fuels and topography support rapid fire spread. Communities-at-risk to wildfire should develop a community wildfire protection plan (CWPP) as a comprehensive means of addressing risk issues and mitigation strategies. The Firewise and Ready, Set, Go! programs provide both general and specific recommendations for communities, homeowners and individuals to protect themselves and their properties from destructive wildfires.

Support to New York

Quebec CL-415 air tanker in NY for a demonstration of water drops
Quebec CL-415 air tanker in NY for a demonstration of water drops

During the occasional years when wildfire occurrence is beyond the ability of fire departments and forest rangers to adequately control, New York has several internal state agency and external mutual aid options with other states, federal agencies and Canadian provinces. The New York State Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services (DHSES) State Office of Emergency Management (SOEM) provides the coordination between federal, state and local agencies during significant events within the state. DHSES Office of Fire Prevention and Control (OFP&C) coordinates the response and mutual aid of fire departments to events that require fire service involvement. They also have many subject matter experts in fire science and fire service tactics that can support containing wildfires. New York State Police Aviation Unit routinely provides helicopter and fixed wing services on problematic fires across the state under the direct command of forest rangers. State police helicopters, locate and size up fires, transport fire crews to remote locations, transport cargo loads to off-road fire scenes and use "bambi-buckets" to drop water on fires. Fixed wing planes are used to scout for undetected fires, size-up fires and provide surveillance for illegal burning or arson detection. New York State Division of Military and Naval Affairs includes the state's Army National Guard, Air National Guard, Naval Militia and New York Guard. These units, either individually or collectively can provide a wide range of aviation services as well as ground and logistical support. All of the National Guard Bureau's ten core capabilities (command and control; security; communications; transportation; aviation; engineer; chemical, biological radiological, nuclear and explosive (CBRNE) response; maintenance; logistics; and medical) have application in large scale or exceptionally destructive wildfires. Over the past decade, National Guard helicopters have provided water drops on several large wildfires. The Department of Correctional Services provides inmate firefighting mop-up crews to forest rangers or fire departments when wildfires are contained but in need of continued control work until extinguished.

New Brunswick air tanker demostrating water drops in NY
New Brunswick air tanker demonstrating water drops in NY

New York has extensive mutual aid support from surrounding states, several federal agencies and four Canadian provinces. New York has been a member of the Northeastern Forest Fire Protection Commission since 1949. The mandate of the Northeastern Forest Fire Protection Compact (NFFPC) is to provide the means for its seven member states, five Canadian provinces and four federal land management agencies to cope with fires that are beyond the jurisdictions through resource sharing (mutual aid). In addition, New York has an annual agreement with the US Forest Service, National Park Service and US Fish and Wildlife Service to exchange firefighting personnel and resources as needed to combat the most nationally severe wildfires. Generally, New York sends at least one 20-person firefighting crew and several single resource personnel to fires throughout the nation each year. New York received out of state firefighting assistance in 1995, 1998, 2002, 2008 and 2015. Quebec, Newfoundland Labrador and New Brunswick each have a fleet of firefighting tanker aircraft that scoop water while flying and drop that water on active fire. These aircraft and their very experienced pilots and crews are New York's most available resource to contain the most serious wildfires that can occur in New York.

Wildfire Mitigation Objectives

In order to minimize the occurrence of wildfire and the associated property loss, forest damage and sometimes loss of life, New York will need to accomplish the following objectives;

  • Maintain a highly trained, well equipped forest ranger force that uses its expertise and resources to contain to most serious of fires.
  • Support fire departments with their responsibility for initial attack of most wildfires.
  • Enforce fire prevention laws, especially the apprehension of those who purposely set fires.
  • Use wildfire predictive services to notify the public and fire officials of fire danger potential.
  • Support and implement FireWise and Ready, Set, Gol! programs.
  • Conduct fire prevention programs in areas of greatest need.
  • Practice safe debris burning and recreational fires in all forests and wildland urban interface environments as allowed by state and local regulations.
  • Support fuel reduction techniques in critical wildland urban interface communities.
  • Support communities with Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPP) with activities that further reduce the risk of wildfire.
  • Identify communities-at-risk of destructive wildfires and support the development of CWPPs for these communities.


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