Is Wildfire Modeling Behind the Times?

Wildfires are one of the most difficult natural disasters to model. Some argue wildfire modeling is 20 years behind hurricane modeling — and that’s not necessarily inaccurate. Hurricanes occur frequently, take several days to form and can be monitored via satellite. Hurricanes are also enormous and can be over 50 miles in radius. They are not obstructed by buildings and, while complex, are affected by fewer variables than wildfires.

Now, consider wildfires. A wildfire can start in seconds by a lightning strike or a dropped cigarette. Oftentimes, the source of ignition is concealed. A wildfire can smolder for days before significant smoke is reported and others can become destructive in a matter of minutes. Even a small burn — just a few acres — can destroy homes and other structures. On top of that, wildfires are affected by a myriad of factors from roads to fuel moisture and type to relative humidity. Sometimes, wildfires are so short-lived that these variables are not recorded; other times, a wildfire covers so many ecosystems that each area of the fire is impacted differently.

File:Propagation model wildfire.png

RedZone Improvements to Wildfire Modeling

Neither hurricane modeling nor wildfire modeling is an easy task. However, wildfires present so many distinct challenges that it’s difficult to even compare the two types of events. Fortunately, wildfire modeling has come a long way in recent years and we at RedZone have made it a priority to make wildfire modeling more accurate than ever before.

Take the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado, for example. A simplistic wildfire model didn’t account for many of the devastating factors that ultimately destroyed properties. One of these factors was ember showers, which caused homes to burn that were outside of the assumed danger zone. RedZone’s solutions, developed by expert wildfire analysts, take into account these lesser-known variables that can have devastating effects on properties during a wildfire. RedZone wildfire modeling also takes several scenarios into account at the same time. For example, it asks: If the wildfire goes in direction A, how far will it go? If the wildfire goes in direction B, how far will it go? And so on. By taking into account the likelihood and severity of every possible scenario, and every variable that goes with each, we are reaching a new standard for wildfire modeling.

RedZone looks at wildfire modeling from a loss-prevention perspective. Therefore, while a model might be good, if homes are unnecessarily destroyed, the model isn’t good enough. We’re developing wildfire modeling so it’s a standard, scientifically peer-reviewed model, which will prevent the loss of structures, homes and land. This model is mutually beneficial for both homeowners and insurance companies — and insurance companies would likely see an obvious and significant ROI increase from adopting it.

Case Study: Canyon 2 Fire in Anaheim Hills, California. October 9, 2017 – October 17, 2017

The first image shows what the model predicted the fire would do in 24 hours without suppression efforts as a factor. The second image shows the official fire perimeter a full week’s worth of active suppression efforts by both aircraft and hundreds of firefighters. In comparing the model against the final perimeter, you can see that fire suppression efforts were successful in stopping the fire at the eastern ridge line and along Highway 241. The difference is that the model predicted this wildland fuel area to have larger, rapid spread. The model did correctly predict the fire to jump Highway 241 and continue to burn aggressively to the south and west. Having our model results early in this incident could have helped decision makers visualize risk, prioritize response, and aid in evacuations due to the nature of the event.  All in all, the Canyon 2 Fire destroyed 25 homes and burned over 9,000 acres.

Canyon 2 Wildfire Model – first 24 hours of fire progression showing the fire’s extent without suppression

canyon2 final perimeter

Canyon 2 Final Fire Perimeter – shows the fire’s full progression with successful suppression efforts keeping it smaller than it could have been

 


Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in May 2017 and was updated in November 2017

New Film Highlights the Unsung Heroes of Wildland Firefighting

only the brave movie poster

© 2017 Sony Pictures Digital Productions Inc. All rights reserved.
Motion Picture © 2017 No Exit Film, LLC. All rights reserved.

2017 has brought devastating wildfires to much of the Western United States. Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington all fared way worse than expected with more than 8 million acres consumed and hundreds of homes lost. California was the hardest hit, experiencing the deadliest and most destructive fires in the state’s history. The fires that tore through Northern California last month engulfed over 245,000 acres, destroyed some 8,000 structures, and caused the loss of life to more than 40 people. Much of country is fortunate to not experience wildfires of this scale and may find this level of devastation hard to comprehend. Fewer still understand the hard fought battle wildland firefighters wage to protect land, life, and structures.

No films in recent memory have told a compelling story of the unsung heroes of wildland firefighting. Short of news stories, audiences likely have little appreciation for the fury of a large wildfires moving like a tidal wave across the landscape. Most of the recent firefighting movies have focused on urban fire stations or have been laughable action films like Firestorm. In the wake of the historic 2017 wildfire season a movie now in theaters finally helps remedy that.

Only the Brave released by Columbia/Sony Pictures recounts the tale of a small group of wildland firefighters, the Granite Mountain Hotshots. The movie, based on an article in GQ titled No Exit, by Sean Flynn, focuses on the personal struggles of Superintendent Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) and Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), whose personal dramas act as a back drop to the formation of the Granite Mountain hotshots and the fires they battled across the country.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots started as a fuels mitigation crew for the city of Prescott before transitioning to a type 2 hand crew in 2004. After becoming frustrated about the crew’s role on numerous fires, Marsh fought for the team to earn an evaluation to become certified as a Hotshot crew. In 2008, after a lot of hard work and politicking the crew earned the distinction as the first municipal hotshot crew in the nation. Hotshots are small crews of elite wildland firefighters trained to fight fires directly in remote backcountry terrain with shovels, chainsaws, and limited support from other resources. Often working in steep rugged terrain with hot and dry conditions, they dig line, cut down trees and light back fires to help keep contain fires to a planned perimeter.

The first two thirds of the movie unfold around these events showing the arduous training, inherent dangers of firefighting, and the bonds it forms within the crew. Much of the story is told through the perspective of new recruit Brendan McDonough, a recovering drug addict who is given a second chance to build a new life for himself and his new born daughter. McDonough’s training allows the movie to tell a story that is not only engaging but is also informative and instructional.

Numerous scenes in the movie depict the crew digging line, clearing brush, and using drip torches and flares to start fires. Seeing firefighters using fire to fight fire is likely new to audiences inexperienced with wildland fire-fighting techniques. The movie shows how flares and drip torches allow firefighters to burn vegetation ahead of an incoming fire-front in order to establish a fire break that robs the approaching blaze of fuel that it needs to continue spreading. These fires can also be used to help steer the main fire or provide safety zones.

The film seamlessly blends some intense scenes of the crew with amazing special effects to highlight the enormity of wildfires and the challenges faced in trying to contain them. The director Joseph Kosinski avoids the normal pitfalls inherent in the typical macho-posturing movies and instead delivers a poignant story that is both emotional and respectful. Kosinski and the actors deliver a sincere portrayal of their real life counterparts along with their authentic camaraderie. Although there are some obvious Hollywood liberties taken, the film faithfully recreates the facts that matter most. Some of the scenes, like the human pyramid in front of the giant Juniper, were painstakingly recreated to pay homage to the now iconic photo of the crew celebrating the successful saving of the sacred Prescott tree during the Doce Fire.

I was refreshing to see that even as the film builds to its inevitable climax at Yarnell Hill, it stayed true to the story, adhering closely to official reports. For example, much of the dialogue is pulled straight from radio transcripts and the accounts from other firefighters on scene. Kosinki lays out the events of the Yarnell Hill Fire “as is” without attempting to try and invent motivations or answer questions that remain unanswered. The result is powerful and effective.

Only the Brave should give viewers a greater appreciation for the role played and the danger faced by wildland firefighters in the perennial battle to protect lives and land in the American West.

granite mountain fund

The Granite Mountain Fund drives donations to support firefighting as well as the towns and families connected to and impacted by hotshots and their work.

Napa Sonoma Fires

Takeaways from the Napa Sonoma Fire Siege

Earlier this week I published some thoughts about the first 24 hours of the October Napa Sonoma Fire Siege. The unprecedented destruction caused by these fires provoked many questions in the emergency world, insurance, and especially the public. We asked our Senior Fire Liaison Doug Lannon his  thoughts to questions regarding;  1) Why were so many homes lost, 2) Why are these fires different, and 3) Why did we see so many homes burn to the ground, but some trees next to homes are still standing?

Weather

Northern California and the North Bay had been in Red Flag Warning conditions for several consecutive weeks before the fires, and were still under a Red Flag Warning when the fires began.  A severe “Santa Ana” type Foehn wind event coupled with low Relative Humidity and dangerously low fuel moistures were a design for disaster under the circumstances.

  • The winds were coming out of the northeast sustained at 40 mph with gusts up to 75 mph
  • Relative Humidity was in the single digits (RH below 20%, more receptive to ignitions)
  • Hot 80 and 90 degree temperatures contributed to the fuel ignition temperature and fire spread
  • During the autumn months, the North Bay temperatures are cooler and many people leave their windows open, making their homes and businesses even susceptible to ember intrusion

Fuels

Following more than five years of drought, the area received almost three times the normal amount of rain last winter and spring, causing two to three times the amount of grass crop and light flashy fuels to grow, but not enough to raise the living fuel moistures in heavy brush and timber to recover completely.  Also tree mortality is at an all-time high in the North State.

  • Dead fuel moisture sticks were hovering between 1 and 2 (10 is maximum, below 5 is serious)
  • Living fuel moisture was at 57% (80% is serious and below 60% is critical), 240% is maximum
  • Light and flashy fuels were abundant and twice as tall and thick as in normal years
  • Moderate to heavy fuels (brush and oak woodland) were extremely dry and abundant
  • Some homes did not have adequate clearance of native vegetation around the structures
  • Many homes had good clearance from native vegetation, but were surrounded by combustible ornamental shrubbery which also contributed to the fire spread into structures
  • Predominate fuel was grass, brush, and oak woodland which can send heavy embers skyward
  • Oak trees, palm trees, and conifer trees will send burning material high up into the convection column and those hot embers can rain down causing new spot fires ahead of the main fire
  • During the autumn months, oak leaves fall off trees adding to the combustible ground litter which can contribute to ember storms (similar to last year’s Gatlinburg Fires)
  • In some cases, ornamental shrubbery planted around homes appeared to have been well irrigated, causing some plants and trees to survive while homes burned

Topography

The areas where the fires were burning are mountainous, fairly hilly and in some cases steep and rugged.  Most drainages on the west side of the mountain ranges in the area are in perfect alignment for a northeast wind to send the fires down into the valley areas to the southwest and into populated, urban, and commercial areas.  Many homes were built along ridgetops and in canyons and passes adjacent to heavily wooded areas.

santa rosa neighborhood damage from the Napa Sonoma Fire Siege

Digital Globe Imagery released October 14th, 2017 shows whole neighborhoods wiped out in northeast Santa Rosa by the Tubbs Fire.

National Fire Danger Rating System

NFDRS components were at the extreme and very critical levels with the Energy Release Components (ERCs) at the highest levels we have seen in the past 26 years (since ERCs have been monitored).  The ERCs for these fires were greater than 90%.  ERCs relate to the available energy (BTUs) per unit area (square foot) within the flaming front at the head of a fire.  Daily variations in ERCs are due to changes in moisture content of the various fuels present, both live and dead.  So this number represents the potential heat release per unit area in the flaming zone.  As live fuels cure and dead fuels dry, the ERC values get higher, providing a good reflection of drought conditions.  Ignition Components (IC) were hovering between 90% and 100%.  The IC numbers represent an estimate of the probability of ignition when embers are blown in the wind ahead of the main fire and are able to contact a receptive fuel bed, then each could result in a new fire.  An IC of 90% to 100% means that if 100 embers are blown in the wind and come in contact with a receptive fuel bed, than those embers will result in 90 to 100 new starts (spot fires).  Scientific research is showing that many of the above factors can be attributed to Climate Change or Global Warming.

Multiple Fires and Lack of Available Resources

Multiple fires ignited during an extreme wind event, resulting in fifteen major fires burning at one time in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, and Solano Counties.  This quickly overwhelmed local, State, and Federal firefighting resources that would normally be available to respond mutual aid to the area where the fires were burning.  The first fire (Tubbs) along Tubbs Lane near Calistoga was ignited at about 2230 hours on Sunday night and began burning rapidly to the southwest towards Santa Rosa.  As more fires ignited, many resources that were originally responding to the Tubbs Fire were diverted to other new fires.  This trend continued for almost twelve hours, resulting in insufficient resources being assigned to active fires burning in the North Bay, while other in-state and out-of-state resources began responding for mutual aid, but had long travel times.  At the same time, other major fires were igniting, one in Orange County and two in Butte County, further taxing the State’s Master Mutual Aid system.  The causes for these fires are still under investigation and have not been released, but rumor has it that downed powerlines, downed power poles, and downed trees into powerlines were largely responsible for causing several of the fires.

Ember Storms

Abundant light, flashy, heavy, and ground litter fuels (dead leaves off of trees, etc.) coupled with the very high winds began blowing burning embers into receptive fuel beds.  This phenomenon was definitely a major contributor to the rapid fire spread, creating spotting.  Many homes and commercial structures had combustible materials next to and in close proximity to the structures, allowing the many spot fires created by embers to spread into those structures.

Rapid Evacuations

The majority of the fires were ignited at nighttime or in the early morning hours, catching people asleep and in their beds.  In many cases the fires were rapidly encroaching on structures when people were awakened and made aware of the hazard, causing many people to evacuate with only the clothes they were wearing and without closing some doors, windows, garage doors, etc.  This left homes more susceptible to ember intrusion, causing some homes to burn from the inside out.

destructive fires list showing four additions from the Napa Sonoma Fire Siege

An updated (Nov 1, 2017) look at California’s 20 most destructive wildfires with four fires added (in red) from last month’s Napa Sonoma fire siege.

 

Written by: Douglas J. Lannon, Senior Fire Liaison, RedZone Disaster Intelligence, LLC.

Napa Sonoma Fires

As the Napa and Sonoma Fires Unfolded

THE FIRST 24 HOURS

Santa Rosa Neighborhood damaged

A fallen flag re-hung the day after the fires burned through the neighborhoods of NE Santa Rosa

1130 Oct 8

For me, it was a typical Fall Sunday in America; highlighted by a one-year old’s birthday party and a big Packer win over the Cowboys. My arrival at home didn’t come until after 10 o’clock, in this case maybe fortunately, and the nightly peek at my work emails even later than that. On a typical Sunday night, my inbox might have some evening updates on fires or new reports of small, irrelevant starts. In this case, by 1130pm I already had twelve IPN emails and loads of tweets warning of the multiple starts. I was alarmed to see troubling terms like “high winds”, “evacuations”, and even “structure involvement” were being used for fires across multiple Northern California counties. I immediately flashed back to Gatlinburg TN, where lives and property were tragically lost in the middle of the night less than a year ago. I sprung into action, turning on fire radio and attempting to figure out exactly where all this activity fell on our map. For the first time in my five years with RedZone, I was headed to the office in the middle of the night to get a headstart on what was surely going to be a long couple days ahead dealing with the Napa Sonoma Fires.

0400 Oct 9

Not long after my colleague and I arrived, we knew what were hearing was really bad news. By 4 am we had about a dozen new large wildfire starts on our radar. Winds howling north of 50 mph were sending extreme fire behavior through the dry grass and oak terrain of several northern counties.  Butte had fires. Clearlake had a fire. Mendocino had fire. Sonoma had multiple fires. Napa was on fire. What’s worse, is, not only is it just wildfire chaos but it’s in the middle of the night. Due to strained resources and limited air reinforcements, fire crews focused all their energy on life-saving and evacuation activities rather than attempt any form of structure protection. As the morning wore on, the true impact to life and property was apparent as radio traffic was overwhelmed with calls of residents entrapped and flooded with eerily streamlined reports of structures ablaze. It was one of the worst things I’ve witnessed unfold, as I knew in my heart not everyone would get out alive.

1800 Oct 9

We spent a good part of late summer watching three major hurricanes devastate areas like Houston, Key West, and Puerto Rico. Something about this just seemed worse, probably the lack of warning and widespread destruction. By the time most of the country woke up, the Tubbs and Atlas Fires had already force-evacuated thousands leaving destroyed homes and commercial properties in its wake. In Santa Rosa, the fire actually crossed the 101 Highway through town. In Napa, a number of iconic wineries and high dollar properties were already devastated by the firestorm. What we saw was the result of a recipe for disaster. High winds with dry fuels and low RH; despite last winter’s drought-relieving rains, the excess fine fuels were ripe for the taking. The multiple starts knocked out cell towers and power across the area. Even as the day wore on and more and more resources arrived, all they could do was focus on evacuations, life-saving, and structure protection as the fires continued to burn uncontrolled.

napa sonoma fire progression

Napa Sonoma Fires progression from green on Oct 9 to dark red on Oct 18th

nate thumbnail

Tropical Storm Nate Sets Sights On Gulf Coast

Tropical Storm Nate Facts:

  • Location: Eastern coast of Honduras, 1,200 miles south of New Orleans
  • Max sustained wind: 40 mph
  • Movement: NNW at 10 mph
  • Storm Behavior: Strong low pressure, heavy wind sheer forecasted to diminish leaving this storm the ability to intensify once it’s over water.

Tropical Storm Nate Overview:

 Tropical Storm Nate is currently over the eastern coast of Honduras, dumping rain over Central America, with portions under a tropical storm warning or hurricane watch. Over the next few days the storm will move north towards the eastern edges of the Yucatan Peninsula and into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. The troubling thing about this system is, as the storm moves north and into the Gulf, it is likely to intensify. Nate is currently displaying winds ranging from 39-73 mph, once this storm reaches the Gulf of Mexico it is forecasted to increase its wind speeds to 74-100 mph and become a category 1 hurricane.

According to the Weather Channel, portions of Central America could see up to 18 inches of rain through Friday as this system passes through. This amount of rainfall is already triggering flash floods, and mudslides throughout the area. These flooding events have already claimed 17 lives across Central America. As you can see in our map and the NHC map below, Nate is forecast to reach the northern Gulf Coast this weekend above tropical storm force. The NHC is warning of the threat of direct impacts from wind, storm surge, and heavy rainfall is increasing from Louisiana through the Florida Panhandle. Experts are expecting a hurricane watch and storm surge watch to be issued for coastal areas of the northern Gulf Coast as early as tonight or Friday morning. The path of the storm seems more certain than other storms this summer as the majority of hurricane models are in alignment on the direction and timing of the storm.


Additional Info:

NHC NOAA Tropical Storm Nate Page

Tropical Storm Nate Forecast Advisory

Tropical Storm Nate Forecast Discussion

Map:

NOAA track Oct8

NOAA Potential Track Map issued Thursday Oct 10th, 8pm eastern


Sources: NOAA, The Weather Channel, National Hurricane Center, National Weather Service

bark beetle tree

California Tree Mortality At An Unprecedented Level

Tree Mortality Overview

According to U.S. Forest Service study done in the summer of 2017, about 6.3 billion dead trees are still standing in 11 Western states, an increase of half a billion from five years ago. 103 million trees have died in California alone since 2010. So what’s happening to the trees? Well, established trees are normally fairly resilient to seasonal changes in their environment, but the last five years of drought in CA coupled with climate change impacts have imposed several stressors acting on the trees at the same time. Most native California trees are fairly resilient to drought, but a prolonged drought weakens the trees and exposes them to pests and disease that a healthier tree could normally fight off. A recent story by the CBS San Francisco discussed the situation in the Sierra National Forest with two Forestry experts there. They stated that there are more dead trees than live ones and will be dealing with the tree mortality there for many years to come.

Tree Mortality Danger

When a tree dies, its wood dries out and becomes very flammable.  When building a campfire, there’s a reason we use downed wood instead of chopping down live trees. Healthy, living trees have a relatively high moisture content.  This helps trees survive a wildfire and slows the progress of that wildfire. When tree death occurs from old age or other reasons, standing dead or fallen trees provide a large amount of dry fuel for wildfires, encouraging fire growth and hindering efforts to put it out. Not only are decomposing trees more flammable, they can also present a safety hazard to firefighters. Specifically, dead trees can fall during fires (which have resulted in deaths), and fallen trees can be an obstacle preventing vehicles and firefighters from reaching or escaping a wildfire.

bark beetle-caused tree mortality

Bark Beetle impact from 2012 US Forest Service report

What’s Happening to the Trees?

Established trees are fairly resilient to seasonal changes in their environment, so it is difficult to understand exactly what is causing so much tree death in California. Perhaps not surprisingly, several stressors have been acting on the trees at the same time.

Drought:

California saw a five-year historic drought that only just ended this last year. Most native California trees are fairly resilient to drought, but this prolonged drought weakened the trees and made them more susceptible to beetles and disease. Two deadly invaders that a healthier tree could normally fight off.

tree mortality in Julian

Tree death (brown trees) near Julian in San Diego County

Pests:

Tree bark is the main defense for trees against pests, disease, and fires. Bark beetles burrow into the bark and expose the trees to other pests or diseases, and can reduce their fire resiliency. Different types of bark beetles act as pests to different types of trees. The Pines and Conifers in the Sierra Nevada Mountains have been decimated by these beetles. Beetle-kill trees have been blamed for prolonging the firefight on the Beaver Creek Fire in Northern Colorado and also the Cedar Fire in California’s Southern Sierra Nevada Range. Tree deaths due to these beetles have been attributed to several major campaign fires across the west over the past few summers. The map above shows hard-hit beetle kill timber forests across the west (in red), which includes both the Cedar and Beaver Creek fire areas.

Disease:

The coast live oak trees have been exposed to Sudden Oak Death, which is caused by a non-native tree fungus. This fungus and other non-native diseases are responsible for an estimated 5 – 10 million oak tree deaths. Many dead trees were identified in the areas where the Soberanes fire near Big Sur is currently burning and have likely contributed (along with major drought) to its acreage eclipsing 100,000 this week.

Plans for Tree Death Prevention

Drought, pests, and disease all put stress on otherwise healthy trees.  When these stresses are combined, we can expect to see continued tree death at unprecedented scales. California has programs to both reduce the amount of tree death and to remove dead trees as a means of reducing fire danger.  Lately, resources have been too scarce to keep up with the levels of tree deaths plaguing the state. Learn more about the epidemic and what is being done to prevent further problems here.


Sources:

www.fs.fed.us

www.fire.ca.gov

www.yale.edu

The Denver Post

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in September 2016 and was updated in September 2017

ember zone waldo

Five Areas with Higher Wildfire Risk Than You Might Think

RedZone has highlighted five lesser-known areas where homeowners have increased wildfire risk

  1. Mid-slope areas
  2. Areas Adjacent to Wildland Fuels
  3. In the Ember Zone
  4. In Urban Canyons
  5. Proximity to Highway Grade

Mid-Slope

Mid-slope is an area commonly thought of as midway up a hillside, in this case, were using in terms of how it’s viewed in a wildfire-prone area. Homes are built and bought in these areas which are one of the least safe places to be during a wildfire. Typically, wildfires burn up a slope faster and more intensely than along flat ground. The steeper the slope the longer the flame lengths and faster-moving the fire.  Any slope can potentially increase the amount of heat a structure will be subject to during a wildfire, enhancing wildfire risk.

Not only is a home in this area more at risk, fire-fighting operations there are increasingly dangerous as well. Just one example from a few years ago, a mid-slope fatality is now a lesson learned from the Coal Canyon Fire in Fall River County, South Dakota. Essentially, firefighting orders will not allow for crews to work mid-slope assignments above a fire without large defensible space or a barrier/structure. Due to the adherent wildfire risk, both Fire Prevention Divisions and Underwriting guidelines suggest an aggressive vegetation modification and maintenance plan if the home or business is located mid-slope or at the top of a steep slope. The insured must also be aware of building materials used, especially if the structure is set back less than 15 feet.

mid-slope home is a wildfire risk

A worrisome home built along a mid-slope road near Lake Elsinore, CA


Adjacent to Wildland Fuels

It is well known that neighborhoods in or bordering the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), have a greater risk for impact by wildfire. In depth studies have learned that within those neighborhoods, homes on the outskirts have a higher risk than those located more interior. One of the main reasons why homes bordering the natural vegetation are at a higher risk of ignition is the lack of any buffer between the structure and the surrounding vegetation. These homes are located in extremely close proximity to the natural vegetation of the surrounding area and, thus, vulnerable to more direct flame impingement. This effect is exacerbated if the individual property owner has not taken the time to prepare his or her land for the occurrence of a wildland fire threatening their property.

Conversely, homes within the development have defensive barriers surrounding them. The inner structures have roads separating them from the structures bordering the surrounding natural vegetation and topography. These interior homes also are more likely to have moisture-rich vegetation such as, lawns, gardens, and manicured brush, making for more difficult sources of ember ignition.

The Sage Fire, near Simi Valley, CA is a good example of the homes located on the outskirts of these neighborhoods being at higher risk than the ones located within. As the fire made a push upslope to the ridgeline, it also spread out following property barriers on the outskirts of the neighborhood. The homes bordering the flame front were at a very high risk of the fire finding an ignition source to endanger it. Homes deeper into the neighborhood were less vulnerable because of the barriers aforementioned and those provided by the outlying homes. In the case of the Sage fire, no homes were impacted due to a small fire break in the vegetation immediately bumping the properties.

sage fire map wildfire risk

2016 Sage Fire burned between dense neighborhoods in Simi Valley, CA


In the Ember Zone

The “Ember Zone” can be defined as the area that could potentially have ember fall out due to a fire burning in the near vicinity. This zone can be up to a mile away from an active wildfire, depending on the size of the fire and wind speed. These embers are thrown from the fire and carried by the wind in the direction that it is blowing. If embers are hot enough and land in a receptive fuel bed, this can lead to an ignition of a spot fire ahead of the active fires edge. Spot fires caused by embers pose a threat because they sometimes go unnoticed for an extended period of time by fire personnel. This is especially the case when spot fires ignite at a distance away from the head of the fire.  The longer the new start has to become established, the harder it is for firefighters to respond effectively to save structures in the path of the newly ignited spot fire.

Another way the Ember Zone can pose a threat to a homeowner would be the process of the embers being blown into uncovered vents on the home, or an ignition source located near or inside the home, resulting in a fire starting in the structure itself. An example of how the Ember Zone proved catastrophic is in the Waldo Canyon Fire near Colorado Springs, Colorado. This fire experienced a drastic wind shift during the second operational period. This wind shift threw embers upwards of half a mile in the direction of the structures located in Colorado Springs. 346 homes were lost in the tragic fire of 2012, some of these were a direct result of ember fall out. Others were lost because of their direct contact with the active fires edge.

waldo 2013 wildfire risk

Embers contributed to many of the 346 homes lost on the Waldo Canyon Fire in 2013 in Colorado Springs, CO


In Urban Canyons

San Diego is known for its mix of wild canyons in between urban, even historic, developed neighborhoods. Most canyons have homes butting up adjacent to the canyon walls, due to San Diego’s unique mesa and valley/canyon landscape. These canyons offer convenient hiking trails and a natural landscape that is unique in an urban environment.  They also provide heavy fuels, steep slopes, and human activity that lead to dangerous fires that often threaten homes. A relatively small wildfire can threaten many homes in these environments.

Examples of wildfires starting in urban canyons:
  • Poinsettia Fire – Destroyed 22 homes and burned 400 acres. Fire started on a golf course and rapidly spread up the canyon.
  • City Heights Fire – Less than 2 acres, but came within a few feet of homes within an hour of a fire being reported.
  • Manzanita Canyon – Several instances of homeless cooking fires getting out of control in the canyon.
urban canyon brings wildfire risk

Homes with little to no defensible space in a San Diego Urban Canyon


Proximity to Highway Grade

If you are considering buying a home near a highway grade, you may get a nice view but could also be at higher risk for wildfires. Steep highway grades add additional complexity and stress on vehicles. Traffic collisions, mechanical failure, electrical issues, and fuel system malfunctions can cause vehicle fires that can extend to vegetation as well. According to the National Fire Protection Association, there is an average of 152,000 vehicle fires per year in the United States. Poorly maintained vehicles, put under stress while climbing up or braking down grades, can break down. As the driver pulls over to the shoulder or off the road entirely, catalytic converters, brakes, dragging exhaust parts, or cigarette butts can ignite dry grasses along a highway. Also, improperly loaded trailers can drag chains; creating sparks that can ignite grasses as the vehicle passes by unknowingly. All of these things can happen at any point along a highway, but the added stress and heat generated by steep grades increases the likelihood of a fire starting and therefore wildfire risk.

Examples of large wildfires starting on major highways:
  • Blue Cut – Highway 15 along the Cajon Pass. Destroyed 105 homes and burned over 36,000 acres.
  • Springs Fire – Highway 101 along the Conejo Grade. Caused by an undetermined roadside ignition. Fire burned 15 homes but threatened 4,000 and burned 24,000 acres.  The fire burned until it hit the coast.
  • Grade Fire – Ridgewood Grade on Highway 101. Caused by a vehicle fire spreading to grass. Burned 900 acres.

SOURCES:

http://www.fire.ca.gov/fire_protection/downloads/redsheet/Jesusita/JesusitaReviewReport.pdf

http://www.firehouse.com/article/10469914/which-factor-is-present-in-most-wildland-firefighting-fatalities-and-burnovers

https://apps.usfa.fema.gov/firefighter-fatalities/fatalityData/detail?fatalityId=3935

http://www.firesafemarin.org/topography

http://www.readyforwildfire.org/Vehicle-Use/

http://www.nfpa.org/public-education/by-topic/property-type-and-vehicles/vehicles

http://nvlpubs.nist.gov/nistpubs/TechnicalNotes/NIST.TN.1910.pdf

https://books.google.com/survivingwildfire

hurricane harvey spins in gulf

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma batter Southern US

Hurricane Harvey (August 26-31st)

On August 17th,  the National Hurricane Center identified Tropical Storm (TS) Harvey just before it passed through the Lesser Antilles, the islands that form the eastern boundary of the Caribbean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean. Over the next two days TS Harvey moved swiftly to the west into the Caribbean under the influence of an expansive ridge of high pressure but the storm began to rapidly lose energy on the 19th of August and was subsequently downgraded to a tropical depression (TD). As TD Harvey moved from the northwestern Caribbean Sea into the Gulf of Mexico over the next four days it gained strength and was upgraded again to a Tropical Storm (TS). By the 24th of August TS Harvey had rapidly intensified in the Gulf of Mexico and was upgraded to a Category 3 Hurricane. Hurricane Harvey made landfall in the early morning of 26 August in Rockport, Texas as a Category 4 Hurricane with a reported 130 mph maximum sustained winds. Harvey’s center of circulation stalled over South Texas for four days dumping 40 and even 50 inches of rain in the Houston and Beaumont areas. The storm moved slowly east back into the Gulf of Mexico before making a final landfall near Cameron, Louisiana, on August 30th and finally dissipating to the north in the days following.

Harvey’s slow movement from 26-30 August resulted in catastrophic flooding in southeast Texas. Numerous flash flood emergencies were issued for the Houston and Beaumont metropolitan areas as well as Bastrop County and nearby communities. Wind gusts from Harvey exceeded 100 mph in many locations, leading to widespread destruction of homes and buildings. Thousands of homes were affected by Harvey, including over 9,000 that were completely destroyed and more than 185,000 that sustained damage according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. Close to 700 businesses were also reported as damaged. Throughout Texas, more than 300,000 people were left without electricity and as of September 6th, at least 70 deaths have been confirmed as a result of Hurricane Harvey.

Additional Info:

NHC NOAA Harvey Event History

Fox News Harvey Article

 

harvey gif

Hurricane Harvey hangs over coastal Texas from August 23rd to September 1st


Hurricane Irma (September 3-11th)

Hurricane Irma reached the United States Sunday Morning, making landfall in the Lower Florida Keys as a Category 4 Hurricane. A few hours later, Category 3, it made landfall a second time just south of Naples, FL on the Southeast coast of Florida. Due to the extreme size and major hurricane status, most of Southern Florida was warned to evacuate ahead of the storm late last week. Upon landfall, extreme winds battered both southern coasts as wind speeds were recorded at 142 mph in Naples and 99 mph in Miami Beach. Storm Surge from the large powerful storm was reported in many places near ten feet along both coasts affected. On Monday, Irma brought heavy rain and wind through the northern Florida city of Jacksonville where 350 people were rescued from the flooding. Irma also pummeled the Charleston area on Monday with over 8 inches of rain and a nearly 10-foot storm surge. The past 48 hours, evacuated Floridians are again dealing with bumper-to-bumper traffic heading home to face monumental cleanups throughout the state.

Wednesday the 13th, the storm has finally completely broken up, and the National Hurricane Center has stopped updating their reports on the storm. In the wake of the storm, President Donald Trump announced this afternoon that he is set to travel to Florida on Thursday. Moody’s estimates Irma caused $83 billion in damage and 77 deaths have been attributed to the storm. Florida utilities have made good progress in restoring power to communities, as 60% of power has been restored, but 4.6 million people are still without power. It could be months before power is restored to some of the islands that were devastated by the storm.

Florida Keys:

The Florida Keys were the hardest hit and today is the first day that the roads were cleared for people to return to their homes for most of the keys. All 42 bridges along US 1 have been inspected and cleared by the Florida Department of Transportation. 80% of the roads across the keys are cleared. Power is restored to 30% of residents, but over 300 major power lines remain downed. Unofficial estimates from FEMA, according to an ABC News report, state that 25% of homes in the keys were destroyed and 90% had damage of some kind. Big Pine Key and Cudjo Key were hit the hardest, as the storm was still a category 4 when it hit them. Few people have returned to those keys, and most utility services are still unavailable. Fuel remains an issue, especially in the areas without power. Most hospitals remain closed, but some with power or backup power have reopened their emergency rooms. Key West was initially thought to have suffered heavy damage, but once people started returning and assessing the damage, most structures were not impacted, just lots of debris and downed trees.

Additional Info:

NHC NOAA Irma Event History

ABC Irma Update

irma gif

Hurricane Irma moves into and through the Caribbean from Sep 3rd through the 11th

Sources:

National Hurricane Center, NOAA, NASA Worldview

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/ct-hurricane-harvey-flooding-houston-20170829-story.html
https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/aug/26/texas-cities-catastrophic-flooding-hurricane-harvey
https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/sep/01/hurricane-harvey-death-toll-rises-houston-residents-return
https://weather.com/storms/hurricane/news/tropical-storm-harvey-forecast-texas-louisiana-arkansas
http://www.nhc.noaa.gov/archive/2017/al09/al092017.update.08241656.shtml

helo wildfire

Wildfire 101: Modern Warning Systems

In the United States, effective systems are in place to help us plan for, respond to, evacuate from, and cope with dangerous and difficult emergency events.  Traditionally in the late twentieth century, mass media (television and radio) were relied upon to inform the general public of impending or ongoing dangerous situations. Previously, older technology like sirens were utilized for warning of impending situations, especially severe weather. While all are still prevalent today, much of the public were left uniformed if not within nearby proximity to one of these alert platforms. Today we have many more options at our disposal.

Modern Warning Systems

In June 2006, following criticism over the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, President George W. Bush signed Executive Order 13407, ordering the Secretary of Homeland Security to establish a new program to integrate and modernize the nation’s existing population warning systems. Installment began on a nationwide system now known as the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, or IPAWS.  IPAWS is an alert and warning infrastructure that allows Federal, State, and local authorities to alert and warn the public about serious emergencies using the Emergency Alert System (EAS), Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA), and other public alerting systems from a single interface.

EAS is used to send emergency messages through cable, broadcast, and satellite television, as well as landline phone recordings. WEA refers to messages, similar to text messages, which appear as a notification to your mobile phone. They are sent by an authorized government authority through your mobile provider. Registration is not required for the national alerts through IPAWS, but a compatible phone and provider are required. The message contains information such as the type of alert, the time of the alert, the issuing agency, and any steps the recipient should take. The types of alerts include AMBER alerts for child abductions, extreme weather alerts, Presidential alerts during a national emergency, or other threatening emergencies in your area. Who receives the alerts is based on connectivity to the affected area’s cellular towers, so the alert is determined by the current location of the cellular device and not the address of the wireless phone owner. Of course, the benefit of this is if you are away from home and an emergency occurs in the area you are visiting, you will still receive the alert through the local cellular tower.

Reverse 911 sends a warning to the public of emergency situations

Reverse 911 is widely used for local emergency situations to be broadcast to email, home, and mobile phones

Other Alert Systems

Many local government agencies have additional alert services that offer greater detail to local emergencies through recorded messages, text alerts, or emails. In order to take full advantage, make sure to check local emergency services options (such as Reverse 911). Often, a registration process is required before you will receive the alerts. Similarly, other modern alert systems allow for notifications of other local emergency situations that also could prompt action.  A few examples:

  • PulsePoint is a mobile application which connects the local dispatch system with CPR-trained bystanders (and the location of the closest AED) regarding a nearby cardiac emergency event… effectively enabling “citizen superheroes.”
  • Google’s ‘Waze’ mobile app is a social-mapping-based means of reporting real-time accidents and traffic alerts.
  • The Incident Paging Network has also proven to be a useful tool for being alerted regionally within the network for a wide range of event types.
  • Here at RedZone we especially appreciate the advent of public alert and advance warning regarding an impending or ongoing disaster. Our RZAlerts are built on the success of this premise.

Sources:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Integrated_Public_Alert_and_Warning_System

fema.gov/integrated-public-alert-warning-system

What is a Fire-Use Wildfire and How is it Beneficial to Forests?

Not every naturally occurring wildland fire is actively suppressed. Naturally occurring wildland fires are normally caused by lightening strikes in areas with fallen trees and other dry accumulated fuels. Under certain circumstances, some wildland fires will be allowed to actively burn in order to help clear these fuels and promote forest health. When a wildland fire is allowed to burn within a pre-defined area to achieve a resource or protection objective it is referred to as a Fire-Use Wildfire. A fire-use fire is different from a prescribed fire in which firefighters intentionally set fires to achieve similar objectives. In addition, federally mandated guidelines state that every human-caused wildland fire will be suppressed and will not be managed for resource benefits. Additionally, once a wildland fire has been managed for suppression objectives, it may never be managed for resource benefit objectives. In other words, a wildland fire must either be suppressed or used for a resource/protection objective but not both.

The Departments of Interior and Agriculture, together with tribal governments, state governments, and local jurisdictions, have the responsibility for protection and management of natural resources on public and Indian Trust lands in the United States. A wildland use fire is one option available to Federal agencies that have an approved land use plan and need to achieve a resource or protection objective. Contributing factors that help steer a fire managers decision-making process are often incident specific. Location, available resources, predicted weather, topography, air quality, and predicted fire behavior are all factors that contribute to fire management decisions.

If a fire is located in remote, steep, rugged or highly inaccessible terrain and people are not threatened, managing the fire as a wildland use fire to meet a protection objective may be more appropriate and can help avoid putting firefighters in unnecessary danger. A wildland use fire can meet resource objectives like helping to maintain healthy forests by supporting a diverse ecosystem. Some wild plants and trees even need fire in order for their seeds to germinate. A carefully monitored wildland use fire can also help reduce naturally occurring fuels accumulation, which could lead to an even bigger wildfire if left unchecked.

Current Large Fire-Use Wildfires

Empire Fire – Yosemite National Park – 1,797 acres

Empire Fire-use Fire Near Yosemite

The Empire Fire burning near Yosemite National Park was caused by lightening and is being managed to promote the health of the ecosystem and protective objectives.

Young Fire – Six Rivers NF & Siskiyou Wilderness – 2,200 acres

Sources

https://www.fws.gov/fire/what_we_do/wildland_fire_use.shtml

https://www.nps.gov/fire/wildland-fire/learning-center/fire-in-depth/ecology.cfm

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/07/160705141437.htm