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Wildfire-Related Deaths --- Texas, March 12--20, 2006

During March 12--20, 2006, wildfires burned approximately 1 million acres in the Panhandle region of Texas, advancing 45 miles in 9 hours, with dense smoke and flames up to 11 feet. The two largest fires, which together extended into nine counties, resulted from power lines downed by sustained winds of 46 mph and gusts up to 53 mph. The wildfires destroyed more than 89 structures, with losses estimated at $16 million. The fires caused evacuations in eight communities with a total population of 4,072 (1). This report summarizes the circumstances of 12 deaths and describes the five separate incidents caused by the two wildfires that resulted in those deaths (Figure).

In response to the wildfires, regional and state public health preparedness staff members at the Texas Department of State Health Services (TDSHS) began mortality surveillance and initiated an investigation to characterize the associated deaths. Case finding was conducted via interviews with local emergency management officials, justices of the peace, and highway safety officials in addition to reviews of local newspaper accounts of the wildfires. A case was defined as any death among civilians or firefighters (volunteer or paid) directly or indirectly associated with incidents associated with one of the two wildfires during March 12--20, 2006. A directly related death was defined as one resulting from direct contact with the wildfire or a wildfire product (e.g., smoke or superheated air). An indirectly related death was defined as one resulting from indirect contact with a wildfire product (e.g., smoke that caused poor visibility, resulting in an automobile crash). Age, sex, county of occurrence, and time and cause of death for each decedent was provided by the Bureau of Vital Statistics of TDSHS.

Twelve deaths (seven directly related and five indirectly related) were considered related to the wildfires. Decedents were aged 14--94 years; median age was 48 years. Eight of the decedents were male. All 12 decedents were injured on March 12, between 1:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eleven were civilians who died on March 12, less than 7 hours after the fires began; the twelfth decedent was a volunteer firefighter who sustained serious injuries on March 12 and died 27 days later.

The injuries that resulted in the 12 deaths occurred in four rural counties (Hutchinson, Roberts, Gray, and Donley), in five separate incidents within a 45-mile radius (Figure). Three of the five incidents resulted in multiple deaths, including two incidents in which four persons died and one in which two persons died. The immediate cause of death for eight (67%) of the decedents was smoke inhalation; the underlying cause for four of those eight was listed as superheated air from grass wildfires. The immediate cause of death for the other four (33%) decedents was blunt-force trauma and complications resulting from injuries; the underlying cause was listed as vehicular accident/collision. Following are descriptions of the five incidents, all of which occurred on March 12.

Incident 1. At approximately 1:30 pm, four persons died as a result of a nine-car collision on Interstate 40. The collision was caused by reduced visibility because of blowing smoke, sand, and dirt from a wildfire. Three of the decedents, two females aged 14 and 49 years and one male aged 56 years, were in the same vehicle; the fourth decedent, a female aged 46 years, was in a separate vehicle. Local officials closed 90 miles of the highway for 9 hours because of heavy smoke.

Incident 2. At approximately 3:00 p.m., an estimated 38 miles from incident 1, rescuers attempted to evacuate an older couple from their home in advance of a spreading wildfire. A female neighbor aged 64 years came to the home to assist with the evacuation. Rescuers were able to place the wife into a rescue vehicle and her husband, aged 84 years, into the neighbor's vehicle. As both vehicles were leaving the property, rescuers noticed that the second vehicle (with the older man and neighbor) had turned around and returned to the home. Both the man and his neighbor were overcome by flames from the advancing wildfire.

Incident 3. At approximately 6:00 p.m., a man aged 94 years died at his home, approximately 5 miles from incident 2. The man had refused attempts by emergency responders to evacuate him from his home in the face of the advancing wildfire.

Incident 4. At approximately 6:30 p.m., an estimated 30 miles from incident 3, four male oil rig workers (aged 25, 27, 30, and 42 years) were driving to work when their vehicle veered off a pasture road in reduced visibility conditions caused by smoke from a wildfire. The vehicle was trapped in a ravine; the men fled the vehicle and used a cellular telephone to contact a coworker, telling him they were having trouble breathing and could not see. The four men were overcome by smoke; their bodies were recovered by emergency responders 24 hours later, approximately 75 yards from their vehicle.

Incident 5. At approximately 7:00 p.m., an estimated 45 miles from incident 4, a male volunteer firefighter aged 62 years was driving a water truck near Interstate 40 in a field where graders had moved brush, leaving the ground softened. When flames approached, the firefighter attempted to escape by backing up the truck, which turned over and rolled down a 60-foot ravine. The firefighter sustained serious injuries and died 27 days later.

Reported by: D Zane, MS, J Henry, PhD, C Lindley, DVM, P Pendergrass, MD, L Mansolo, Texas Dept of State Health Svcs. D Galloway, T Spencer, M Stanford, Texas Forest Svc. D Batts, MD, National Center for Environmental Health, CDC.

Editorial Note:

Wildfires can spread rapidly, and even in sparsely populated areas, multiple fatalities can occur within a brief period. Eleven of the 12 deaths described in this report occurred within 7 hours of the start of the fires; these 11 deaths were the most civilian deaths associated with wildfires in the United States since 2003 (2). Conditions in the Panhandle region of Texas in March 2006 were ideal for wildfires. The area had experienced a drought for 11 months, and drought conditions for the preceding 5 months had been rated as extreme by the U.S. Drought Monitor; the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center had issued a fire danger warning of extremely critical for March 8, 10, 11, and 12.

Wildfire deaths can be prevented; however, preparedness and disaster planning are essential to reduce the health impact of wildfires. Effective methods for creating "defensible spaces" have been described for homeowners, but these must be in place before a wildfire starts (3). Steps to protect a home from wildfires include keeping all combustible materials (e.g., firewood and dead vegetation) away from structures and clearing roof surfaces and gutters regularly to avoid build-up of flammable materials such as leaves and other debris (3).

Wildfires are a growing hazard in most regions of the United States, presenting a threat to property and life (4). In 2004, wildfires burned approximately 8 million acres in 40 states. During 2000--2007, an annual average of 17,615 wildfires occurred in the United States (Jennifer Smith, National Interagency Fire Center, personal communication, 2007). During 1995--2004, a total of 184 firefighter deaths were associated with fighting wildfires in the United States (5). Of the 21 firefighter deaths associated with wildfires in 2004, a total of 10 resulted from myocardial infarction, five were related to vehicle crashes, three were caused by aircraft crashes, and three resulted from other circumstances. The number of civilian deaths related to wildfires during this period is unknown.

The findings in this report are subject to at least two limitations. First, although cases were identified through multisource case finding, certain deaths directly or indirectly attributable to the wildfires might have been missed. Second, certain deaths might have occurred outside of the study period, particularly those indirectly attributable to the wildfires.

Wildfire prevention messages are available from the Texas Forest Service, U.S. Fire Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency, and CDC (3,6--8). Key messages include adhering to warnings and evacuation orders, avoiding traveling through smoke on roadways, having an exit strategy, and avoiding the path of the wildfire. Detailed action plans also exist for persons trapped at home and persons threatened by smoke and fire outdoors or while riding in vehicles (7). A comprehensive strategy addressing wildfires is provided in the U.S. National Fire Plan (9), and a guide for public health officials regarding wildfire smoke health effects and prevention measures is available at http://www.oehha.ca.gov/air/risk_assess/wildfirev8.pdf.

Acknowledgments

The findings in this report are based, in part, on contributions by J Alexander, DVM, B Hernandez, T Haywood, P Raimondo, J Walker, MD, T Sidwa, DVM, S Elkins, D Johnson, A Whitley, P Tabor, C Tuttle, D McLellan, R Apodaca, M Widtfeldt, S Prosperie, B Ray, D Powell, Texas Dept of State Health Svcs; B Woods, P Hannemann, P Schaub, C Roggenbuck, Texas Forest Svc; J Smith, National Interagency Fire Center; and local emergency management staff members, justices of the peace, and public safety officers in the Texas Panhandle region.

References

  1. Center for Health Statistics. 2000 US Census data. Austin, TX: Texas Department of State Health Services, Center for Health Statistics.
  2. National Interagency Fire Center. Fire information: wildland fire statistics. Boise, ID: National Interagency Fire Center; 2007. Available at http://www.nifc.gov/fire_info/historical_stats.htm.
  3. Texas Forest Service. 10 simple steps to protect your home from wildland fire. College Station, TX: Texas Forest Service. Available at http://txforestservice.tamu.edu/main/article.aspx?id=1542.
  4. US Geological Survey. Wildfire hazards---a national threat. Washington, DC: US Department of the Interior, US Geological Survey; 2006. Available at http://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/2006/3015/2006-3015.pdf.
  5. US Fire Administration. Firefighter fatalities in the United States reports available. Emmitsburg, MD: Federal Emergency Management Agency, US Fire Administration; 2005. Available at http://216.70.126.67/library/?p=129.
  6. US Fire Administration. Wildfire . . . are you prepared? Emmitsburg, MD: Federal Emergency Management Agency, US Fire Administration. Available at http://www.usfa.dhs.gov/downloads/pdf/publications/fa-287-508.pdf.
  7. Federal Emergency Management Agency. What to do during a wildfire. Washington, DC: Federal Emergency Management Agency; 2006. Available at http://www.fema.gov/hazard/wildfire/wf_during.shtm.
  8. CDC. Wildfires fact sheet. Atlanta, GA: US Department of Health and Human Services, CDC; 2007. Available at http://www.bt.cdc.gov/disasters/wildfires/pdf/wildfiresfacts.pdf.
  9. US Department of the Interior. A collaborative approach for reducing wildland fire risks to communities and the environment. Washington, DC: US Department of the Interior; 2006. Available at http://www.forestsandrangelands.gov/plan/documents/10-yearstrategyfinal_dec2006.pdf.


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