written & submitted by Kevin Conran - BLM Fire Mitigation and Education Specialist
Kevin Conran works for the Bureau of Land Management as the Fire Mitigation and Education Specialist for the Idaho Falls District
As a Fire Mitigation/Education Specialist for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), a major component of my duties involve developing and implementing fire prevention programs aimed at reducing the number and severity of human caused wildfires.This is typically accomplished through public education centered around common fire cause classes that are often defined by NFPA 921 as “accidental” in nature. These educational programs are commonly supported by the target audience and the general public.
Another primary responsibility includes fire investigation for my unit. As we continue to improve our skills in this aspect of our program, it has become apparent that we have a larger wildland arson problem in our area than previously believed. Currently, it is estimated that approximately 6% of the human caused fires on my unit are attributed to arson. This only includes fires that we (the BLM) investigate on federal lands and doesn’t take into account fires occurring on private or other lands that we don’t routinely respond to or investigate, so the true picture is undoubtedly much larger. Designing a program around preventing fires that are “incendiary” in nature, where the responsible party deliberately intends to ignite these fires is difficult. Traditional education programs are not effective since these individuals know what they are doing is wrong and illegal and choose to do it anyway.
The obvious answer is through law enforcement involvement and catching the “bad guys.” While we have had some recent successes in this arena, this is often easier said than done. Most of these individuals act alone and in areas that are sparsely populated, limiting the potential for detection and quality witness information to provide good leads for law enforcement to act upon.
Press Conference held in Power County
Most of the recent arson activity that we have experienced in eastern Idaho has been in Power and Bannock Counties both in areas within and outside of the Fort Hall Indian Reservation.We also have recorded incidents in Bonneville, Bingham, Butte and Fremont Counties.
The first area is improving our origin and cause investigations. By providing training for first responding fire fighters to identify potential fire origin areas and taking steps to limit fire suppression activities in those origin areas to protect evidence we are achieving this objective. First responders are also being trained to make better observations while enroute to fire scenes increasing their awareness regarding vehicles and people in the area and fire behavior during initial attack. Over the past two years first responders from the BLM, American Falls FD, Chubbuck FD, Fort Hall FD and Fort Hall Tribal Fish and Game have completed the NWCG FI-110 Wildland Fire Observations and Origin Scene Protection for First Responders course to facilitate this effort. Additionally, several of our local fire and law enforcement agency personnel have completed the NWCG FI-210 Wildland Fire Origin and Cause Determination course.
Another aspect that has helped us is that the cooperating agencies meet regularly and stay in contact with each other throughout the course of the wildland fire season.Many local law enforcement and investigators are automatically dispatched and respond quickly to reported wildfire incidents within their jurisdictions. In the past these incidents were often felt to be strictly a fire issue and were not strongly supported.
The second area is increased awareness in the local communities. This is based on a similar program done several years ago in Oregon by the Oregon Department of Forestry. Residents were provided with one time use cameras and some tips on arson observations that would aid law enforcement in identifying arson suspects. The cameras were purchased by BLM and were provided to the Power County Sheriff’s Office and Fort Hall Tribal Fish and Game and were personally distributed to over 100 local residents in the community.Signs, similar to neighborhood watch signs, were also provided for placement along access roads in these communities to further remind residents to be vigilant and observant of suspicious people, vehicles and activities and to notify authorities when observed.
Cameras were provided to local residents to take pictures of suspicious activities
A formal press conference was held in June of 2009 announcing the program and discussing the problem.
The last emphasis area is offering a reward of up to $5,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for these arson fires. The funding for the reward, if utilized, will be provided cooperatively by the BLM, Power County and the Fort Hall Tribe.
It is too early to determine the effectiveness of these programs.The fire season of 2009 was relatively mild, partially due to the wet weather and fuel conditions, and no suspected arson fires were identified in the area during this period. We plan to continue this program and remind the media and local communities prior to the upcoming fire season of the importance of remaining vigilant.