Why only some firefighters can fight forest fires

Photo of Jordan Fenster

If your house burns down, every firefighter from every local town might come to the rescue.

But if there’s a forest fire, which firefighters are legally allowed to put it out is a question.

There is a specialized force trained to fight forest fires. It’s called the Connecticut Interstate Fire Crew, and it’s comprised of both local firefighters and employees of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

But as Michael Kronick, Westport’s deputy fire chief said when he testified last week at the state capitol, only DEEP employees can fight forest fires in Connecticut.

If a firefighter is not employed by DEEP they cannot legally fight a forest fire.

Kronick, up in Hartford on Valentine’s Day testifying in favor of a bill that would allow local firefighters to work against forest fires, made sure legislators understood that forest fires are a reality.

“In March of 2009, Weston, Connecticut had what was a relatively small wildland urban interface fire in which 15 acres burned, one home was destroyed and two homes damaged. Seventy-five firefighters from 8 communities responded to help contain this fire,” he told the Public Safety and Security Committee. “Approximately 77 percent of Connecticut is forested or wildland urban interface with about 54% of all homes in Connecticut in these areas.”

Rep. Bill Buckbee, R-New Milford, has proposed the legislation that would allow Connecticut firefighters to fight forest fires inside Connecticut.

He said in a release that “if this law were to pass, then qualified forest firefighters, regardless of employer, would be able to help fight in the event of an emergency.”

In testimony to the committee, soon-to-be DEEP Commissioner Katie Dykes called the restrictive nature of the statute a “discrepancy.”

“DEEP anticipates having more extreme wildfire events in Connecticut in the future as illustrated by local and national events in recent years,” she said. In 2016 Connecticut had one of the largest fires in decades, and less than 200 miles from our border New York and Pennsylvania had multi-thousand-acre fires.”

According to Kronick, fighting forest fires is different: “We are trained specifically to deal with forest and wildland fires.”

“The tactics and tools are different, allowing us to contain such fires more efficiently and safely with respect to the environment and forest,” he told the committee. “General containing and suppressing forest and wildland fires is time-consuming taking days not hours, this puts a stress on local resources like volunteer fire departments that are short staffed. Being able to deploy our own qualified forest firefighters will go a long way in supporting not only local municipalities but also the state when needed.”