Looking back at the fire headlines of the past year.

Beginning on Oct. 20, and brought on by drought, hot weather, and unusually gusty Santa Ana winds, a series of wildfires burned across Southern California that were not fully contained until Nov. 9. Ten people were killed by the fires directly, and seven other fatalities involving evacuees were indirectly linked to the wildfires. These fires came on the heels of a 375-square-mile fire that began on the 4th of July near Santa Barbara and devastated acres of terrain and left 44 firefighters injured. In all, nearly 1 million people were displaced.

Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego became a temporary shelter for more than 20,000 displaced and disheveled civilians, some living in tents in the parking lot outside. High schools and fairgrounds also opened their doors to receive the stranded. More than 2,000 homes were destroyed. The punishing flames blackened more than 400,000 acres of dry vegetation and forest while exhausting moisture from the ground. Entire neighborhoods were burned. Many major highways were shut down. Businesses and schools closed. It was nothing short of a horrendous natural catastrophe.

In total, 23 separate wildfires ran amok from Mexico to Los Angeles at October’s end. Aggressive and, in most cases, mandatory, evacuation procedures issued by cities and counties surely saved many lives. Sadly, these procedures were lacking during the tragic 2003 wildfire season (20 fatalities), which destroyed nearly 700,000 acres. The lesson learned there was that flames have the ability to travel faster than people. As in 2003, the fierce Santa Ana winds, which gusted up to 90 miles per hour, were the primary menace.

Making matters worse, an unseasonably wet 2004-05 winter had allowed for a substantial re-growth of shrub, chaparral, and vegetation which, due to subsequent dry weather in 2006, turned forest floors into vast accumulations of a vulnerable crispy dryness, a virtual tinderbox.

On a scale of 1 to 10, climatologists reported that the October Santa Ana winds registered a solid 10. Once the forests began to burn, they churned a rising column of smoke and heat, which allowed for fresh air to rush in below, feeding new winds capable of blowing burning embers as much as 2,500 feet. Regional temperatures in the 90s topped off the ominous roster of fire factors.

The origins of the 23 fires are still under investigation, although at least two appear to have been intentionally set. One fire was triggered by power lines, which were downed by high winds. A 10-year old playing with matches caused another. When finally tabulated, the tally of destruction will climb into the hundreds of millions. It took the combined efforts of more than 14,000 firefighters utilizing all available resources to ultimately stop what long appeared to be a losing battle.

Southern California wildfires are a major, recurring disaster, and they can and will occur between April and November. Three conditions contribute to wildfire susceptibility: topography, weather, and fuel load. Since little can be done about the first two conditions, engineers are busy between December and March with efforts targeted at mitigating and restricting fuel load.

Besides dry brush, thinner weakened trees and deadwood are recognized as the least fire-tolerant in remote endangered areas. What also dangerously fuels wildfires is dense groves of trees and residential homes. Homes contain oxygen and combustibles, and if not built with fire-resistant materials, pose more of a fire threat than do untouched forests.

The fire code adopted in California following the 2003 season requires that a 100-foot clear perimeter be maintained around new homes in high-risk areas, although few areas are enforcing that and other regulations. This bodes badly for the future, as areas such as San Diego County are among the fastest-growing metro areas in the nation. Water use there has risen 34% since 1995.

Finally, climate researchers are pointing to warmer, windier weather and longer, drier summers in the upcoming decade. Since firefighting resources are thinned by multiple fires, the No. 1 antidote appears to be spotting and halting all smaller fires very quickly to avoid catastrophe. The stark fact is that the forests of Southern California represent an ecosystem that must be carefully managed and maintained.

The Firestorm in Greece

Beginning on Aug. 23, a succession of heat waves and high winds since the onset of summer consumed approximately 500,000 acres of forest and olive groves across southern Greece. Hundreds of people lost their homes, and 64 people lost their lives. Thirty of those were from the cities of Makistos and Artemida, where villagers literally died on the run. A total of 44 separate fires were reported. Dozens of villages were burned. Raging fires reached the outskirts of Athens and the 6,000-year old city of Olympia.

Hills once covered with pine forest are now deep in ash and fallen timbers. A drought across all of southern Europe coupled with the high winds was largely responsible for the crisis. In addition, rural Greece is largely uninhabited and forest flammability is generally high.

The lack of roads within the forests severely hampered firefighting efforts, although Greece is home to the largest fleet of firefighting planes in Europe. Twenty-one neighboring countries dispatched firefighters to aid Greece in battling the blazes. Authorities have called this the worst fire season in Greek history.

As in America, arson has been suspected, but in many cases, very difficult to prove. In Greece, where arson has long been identified as a major cause of wildfires, the intentional setting of fires has become a political issue. Forests are protected real estate in Greece, while tourism drives their economic engine. In the past, developers there have been able to argue that once forested land has been reduced to soot, it no longer qualifies as a forest, and can legally be used to build summer housing and/or tourist accommodations.

With demand for land far in excess of supply, this motive for arson has been recognized since the 1980s. In a nationally televised address, Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis stated that “so many fires sparked simultaneously in so many places cannot be a coincidence,” and described the situation as a “battle that has to be won.” Still, others simply blamed the burning on a combination of parched forests and sweltering dry heat.

Tragedy in North Carolina

The death toll was seven in a 7:00 a.m. beach house inferno in Ocean Isle Beach, NC, occupied by college students. The Oct. 28 blaze swept quickly through the 2-story combustible structure. According to the six survivors, fire alarms in the beach house had activated. The first 911 call came from a newspaper delivery man who witnessed a column of smoke rising from the building. State investigators believe that the fire started on the back deck of the house, and could not rule out the possibility of discarded smoking materials as the cause.

Fatal fires in campus housing are sadly, another recurring tragedy in the United States. There are many reasons for this and one is the fact that this housing all too often consists of older (non fire-resistive) construction, devoid of fire sprinklers, with poor housekeeping practices, too many smokers, and a frequent multitude of overnight guests who may not be familiar with the exit routes within the residence.

There is an excess of alcohol consumption. Sleeping occupants are usually unaware of a developing fire within the building, and will be disoriented and confused when they are finally awakened. If they have already inhaled carbon monoxide and other toxic gases by that time, they may not be fully alert in order to locate a route by which to crawl out into a safe atmosphere.

Education also is a problem. In a recent survey (Jan. 2007) conducted by the Society for Fire Protection Engineers, one question asked: “If there was a fire in your building, what would be your first action?” Only 28% correctly responded that they would evacuate the building. The general public should be aware that they should evacuate first and then call the fire department.

While there is no doubt that an approved fire sprinkler installation saves lives in any structure, it should be a primary objective to ensure safe living environments for all college students. NFPA 13R, the more cost-effective standard and one heralding life safety as its primary goal, is applicable for most college housing applications. But as we wind down 2007, we are reminded that our objectives and efforts are often overshadowed by tragedy. Fire protection engineering, and its successful application, is nothing more than a work in progress.