Wildland firefighter deaths in the United States: a comparison of existing surveillance systems
Document Type: Journal Article
Author(s): Corey Butler; Suzanne Marsh; Joseph W. Domitrovich; Jim Helmkamp
Publication Year: 2017

Cataloging Information

  • climate change
  • exposure
  • fatalities
  • fire hazard reduction
  • firefighting personnel
  • Heart-Disease
  • Particulate Air-Pollution
  • short-term
  • wildfires
  • Wildland Fire Fatality
  • Wildland Firefighter
Record Maintained By:
Record Last Modified: February 24, 2019
FRAMES Record Number: 55579
Tall Timbers Record Number: 33652
TTRS Location Status: Not in file
TTRS Call Number: Available
TTRS Abstract Status: Okay

This bibliographic record was either created or modified by the Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy and is provided without charge to promote research and education in Fire Ecology. The E.V. Komarek Fire Ecology Database is the intellectual property of the Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy.


Wildland fire fighting is a high-risk occupation requiring considerable physical and psychological demands. Multiple agencies publish fatality summaries for wildland firefighters; however, the reported number and types vary. At least five different surveillance systems capture deaths, each with varying case definitions and case inclusion/exclusion criteria. Four are population-level systems and one is case-based. System differences create challenges to accurately characterize fatalities.Data within each of the five surveillance systems were examined to better understand the types of wildland firefighter data collected, to assess each system's utility in characterizing wildland firefighter fatalities, and to determine each system's potential to inform prevention strategies. To describe similarities and differences in how data were recorded and characterized, wildland fire deaths for three of the population-based systems were matched and individual fatalities across systems were compared.Between 2001 and 2012, 247 unique deaths were captured among the systems; 73% of these were captured in all three systems. Most common causes of death in all systems were associated with aviation, vehicles, medical events, and entrapments/burnovers. The data show that, although the three systems often report similar annual summary statistics, events captured in each system vary each year depending on the types of events that the system is designed to track, such as inclusion/exclusion of fatalities associated with the Hometown Heroes Survivor Benefits Act of 2003.The overarching and central goal of each system is to collect accurate and timely information to improve wildland firefighter safety and health. Each system is unique and has varying inclusion and exclusion criteria for capturing and tracking different subsets of wildland firefighter tasks and duties. Use of a common case definition and better descriptions and interpretations of the data and the results would help to more accurately characterize wildland firefighter traumatic injuries and illnesses, lessen the likelihood for misinterpretation of wildland firefighter fatality data, and assist with defining the true occupational injury burden within this high-risk population. This article not subject to U.S. copyright law.

Online Link(s):
Butler, C., S. Marsh, J. W. Domitrovich, and J. Helmkamp. 2017. Wildland firefighter deaths in the United States: a comparison of existing surveillance systems. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, v. 14, no. 4, p. 258-270. 10.1080/15459624.1250004.