The Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF) is charged with the protection of the forest resources from fire. The principle goals of the Forest Protection Program are to prevent injury or loss of human life, minimize property damage and protect resources.
The VDOF has a well-defined and organized forest protection team, with every member of the Department having fire responsibilities. The ability to adapt to emergencies enables a small formal fire suppression force to limit annual fire losses to an average of less than 8200 acres (10-year average). This low average is accomplished through coordination with local fire departments, forest industry, federal agencies, other state agencies and VDOF organized volunteer fire crews.
The activity falls into six components:
The number one priority of the VDOF is the suppression of on-going fires. Adequate numbers of trained and qualified personnel, modern equipment, early detection and a high state of readiness are the key elements in the suppression effort. Detection includes the use of aerial detection as well as fire towers and patrolling of high occurrence areas during critical periods. The Department's Wildfire Readiness and Mobilization Plan provides the framework of preparedness at all levels to ensure fire control responses in accordance with the current prevailing fire weather and fire occurrences. The use of specialized fire suppression equipment, such as tractor/plow units, helicopter/buckets and all terrain equipment, allows our personnel to commence control operations quickly even in remote areas, keeping fires smaller and easier to extinguish. Dur6ing large fire or multiple fire situations DOF resources are quickly depleted. Resources, personnel, and equipment from other agencies and volunteers are then hired at established wage and equipment rates. These resources are involved in fire control only to the extent necessary to control the emergency.
"The easiest and cheapest way to suppress a fire is before it starts". The Department maintains a multi-faceted program of fire prevention which includes person-to-person contacts, media contacts, exhibits and fire prevention programs to schools, talks and presentation to civic organizations and other groups to constantly keep the public "fire prevention conscious". The programs encourage cooperation with public agencies with similar goals and informs the general public of current and potential forest fire danger.
Prescribed fire is used operationally throughout much of Virginia to: (1) reduce hazardous fuel accumulations, (2) prepare sites for reforestation by creating planting space and reducing competitive vegetation, and (3) improve wildlife habitat by allowing production of palatable new plants and sprouts. In addition to these tangible benefits, the control of prescribed fire is very similar to the suppression of wildfire and it serves as an invaluable learning experience, training our new personnel and maintaining the skills of our experienced personnel at a very high level.
Virginia has a system of forest fire laws designed to protect the forest resources of the Commonwealth. While there are 11 sections of the Virginia Code dealing with forest fires, the sections most commonly used are those covering the liability for negligent fires, regulating the burning of woods, and failure to extinguish fires in the open. All Department field personnel are trained in law enforcement, appointed as forest wardens with the authority to enforce the laws and are required to enforce the laws as a prevention tactic.
Forest fires can endanger and burn homes. Fires that start as structural fires can also spread to the forest. Ninety-eight percent of forest fires in Virginia are caused by humans. More people in or near the forest can cause more forest fires. Surveys show that over the past 15 years the number of woodland homes developments in Virginia has increased from 524 to 2,914 and the number of dwellings in those developments from 18,203 to 138,111. Each year numerous dwellings and outbuildings in forested areas are threatened by forest fires. In the spring of 1995 alone, over 1,500 homes were threatened by 1,466 fires and nearly 100 were damaged or destroyed. On these woodland/urban interface fires the capabilities of the Department's personnel and equipment as well as the cooperators are stretched to the limit. The prevention and suppression of fires in and near residential areas is one of the most significant challenges of the Fire Protection Program.
By nature, the Department's field personnel are trained and equipped for emergency fire response mobilization. This same training and equipment lends itself equally to non-fire disasters and emergency situations such as storms, flooding and ice damage. VDOF personnel and equipment are strategically located across the entire State with a radio communications system to support a rapid response anywhere. Their unique skills and knowledge make them one of the few emergency response organizations which can function equally well in remote forested sections of the State.
There are no federal mandates for forest protection component activities. The Code of Virginia Title 10.1 - 1105 mandates the State Forester... shall have charge of all forest wardens... shall take such action as is authorized by law to prevent and extinguish forest fires; enforce all laws pertaining to forest and woodland; prosecute any violation of such laws; collect information relative to forest destruction and conditions; direct the protection and improvement of all forest reservations; shall cooperate with counties, municipalities, corporations and individuals in preparing plans and providing technical assistance for the protection, management and replacement of trees, wood lots and timber contracts.
Under the Code of Virginia, Title 10.1 - 1136, forest wardens are to (i) enforce all forest and forest fire statutes and regulations of the Commonwealth, (ii) serve as forest fire incident commander and perform other duties as needed in the management and suppression of forest fire incidents.
Under the Code of Virginia, Title 10.1 - 1141, the State Forester shall... collect the costs of fire fighting performed under the direction of a forest warden.
In reference to the Non-Fire Emergency Readiness and Response, the Code of Virginia, Title 44 - 146.24 mandates that the heads of state agencies... are directed to utilize the services, equipment, supplies and facilities of existing departments, offices and agencies of the Commonwealth and the political subdivisions thereof to the maximum extent practicable. The officers and personnel of all such departments, offices and agencies are directed to cooperate with and extend such services and facilities to the Governor and to the State Department of Emergency Service upon request.