The Big Burn by Timothy Egan

Book Review: “The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America”

In The Big Burn, author Timothy Egan takes the reader through the beginning years of environmentalist and activist John Muir’s growing friendship with then Governor Teddy Roosevelt. The book builds by highlighting their growing, shared desire to preserve the frontier and forestlands of the West. During Roosevelt’s presidency, he leaned heavily on forester and politician Gifford Pinchot to manage and develop the nationally protected forestry lands. Pinchot, in turn, formed the US Forest Service, as we know it today. Egan provides in-depth historical accounts of the politics involved in the establishment of the protected areas and the fight against unregulated land clearing by logging companies.

 

President Teddy Roosevelt & Naturalist John Muir in 1903, Yosemite, CA.

President Teddy Roosevelt & Naturalist John Muir in 1903, Yosemite, CA.

As the story leads in to 1910, Egan sets the stage by depicting a newly established forestry service still developing its forestry management plan. Many areas had no trained or allocated firefighting groups. With little-to-no fire crew system in place, Egan tells how forest rangers would have to staff their crews with any able-bodied men in town when the need arose, oftentimes from the nearby saloon. The whole situation becomes harrowing when one day in late August, a wildfire began burning out of control in the Coeur d’Alene National Forest. In response, a ranger named Ed Pulaski, was sent with a 45 man crew to work a part of the fire and ended up forced to find shelter in a nearby mine. Pulaski knew the area, was familiar with fire behavior, and was determined to save his men, even giving up his horse to an older fire fighter so the man could keep up with the crew. Pulaski kept his men sheltered in the mining tunnel overnight until the fire passed, keeping some of the panicked men inside the tunnel by force at gunpoint. The next day, he famously led them out of the forest into the nearby town to the hospital. Included in Egan’s relating of the Big Burn, as it came to be called, are many first-hand accounts and photos that pull the reader even closer into the events that occurred in the Coeur d’Alene area. The August 1910 fire across portions of Idaho, Montana, and Washington burned approximately 3 million acres of logging and mining land – nearly the size of Connecticut.

Image of mining tunnel where Pulaski and his crew stayed overnight - now called the Pulaski Tunnel

Mining tunnel where Pulaski and his crew stayed overnight – now called the Pulaski Tunnel

This book is recommended for readers interested in the historical account of the Big Burn and the inspiration for the development of the US Forestry Service and National Park Service. It is easily readable and engaging while giving an incredibly detailed and laid out history of the events surrounding this fire. Readers familiar with the wildland fire fighting world may know Pulaski’s name from the Pulaski tool credited to him (and likely created after this incident due to the need shown for better firefighting tools) that is a national standard.

For more information:

Social Media Tips for Insurance Agencies During Wildfire Season

If your company isn’t harnessing the power and audience of social media outlets in your disaster plans, you are leaving a huge resource untapped. Today we will be exploring some ways that social media can help insurance agencies stay informed, provide resources and information to customers, improve customer service, and spread the knowledge and professionalism of their brand. For more information on how Social Media is used to deliver timely wildfire information, see our past blog: Social Media and Wildfire.

Passive vs. Active Uses

Passive: monitor and follow various feeds of information to remain up to date.

  • Follow reliable Fire and Safety Agencies for the latest information regarding an incident. Federal, State, and Local fire agencies are getting more active on Twitter, Facebook, Periscope, and other social networks. Official accounts often offer the latest official information much faster than news reports.

    Tahoe National Forest tweets a link to details regarding an upcoming prescribed burn.

     

  • Watch livestreams of briefings or news reports from the scene. New livestreaming technology and adoption are bringing unprecedented access to official briefings and meetings in real time. Example: Canyon Fire Briefing from September 28, 2017.

Active: share information to help your followers stay informed.

  • Inform followers of fire and insurance resources. Retweet information about shelters for those displaced by the fire, or make a Facebook post about how to file a claim for damaged property. Being helpful and forthcoming about what the company knows and can offer will build good faith with your customers, especially in a time of need.

    FEMA tweeting resources to help with applying for disaster aid.

  • Share fire information that affects your customers, such as the latest fire activity, evacuations, road closures, etc.

CalFire tweeting the final acreage and containment figures to the Nuns Fire with a link to the incident page.

 

  • Use official media from ready.gov and weather.gov to advise followers of how to prepare their homes and family plan before a wildfire, and what to do when one occurs. These links provide excellent content intended to be shared on social media.

    National Weather Association tweets a link to their wildfire safety preparedness web page.

 

  • Respond directly to customer questions and concerns with credible information.

The official Sonoma County Sheriff twitter updates followers on the latest evacuations.

Bottom Line: Information is Valuable and People Will Appreciate the Help

Wildfires can be confusing, frustrating, emotional, and devastating for individuals and their families. Social media offers insurance agencies multiple tools to help keep themselves and their customers informed. Important information such as evacuations, shelters, and resources is not always easy for people to find. Being proactive about knowing what is going on and sharing that information adds trust with your customers and can help make a devastating event in their life a little easier to handle.

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

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.

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

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

 

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 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. A small burn — just a few acres — can destroy homes and other structures. 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 storms. But wildfire modeling isn’t inaccurate — and we’re making strides 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.

The good news is that researchers around the world are working to develop this “holy grail” of wildfire modeling software. Between RedZone, researchers at the University of California at San Diego and other scientists, we expect that wildfire modeling will soon match the accuracy of hurricane modeling.

RedZone Takes Part in Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) Conference

Wildland Urban Interface Conference

RedZone was pleased to take part in the annual Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) Conference held at the Peppermill Resort in Reno, Nevada, during the week of March 20, 2017. Each year this event, hosted by The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), offers invaluable hands-on training and interactive sessions designed to address the various challenges presented by wildland fire.

During this year’s WUI conference, RedZone had the honor of meeting fire representatives from Local, State, Federal and International agencies such as the Texas Forest Service, Australian Fire Ministry, USFS, Cal Fire and Cedar City Fire Department. An exhibit hall allowed vendors the opportunity to showcase new products and spend valuable time with prospective clients. Some vendors in attendance included Spiedr Spinkler, Simtable, Mtech, Boise Mobile Equipment, Supply Cache and National Firefighter.  

Wildfire Scores

RedZone’s revamped booth highlighted our new product wildfirescores.com. The product allows homeowners, insurance underwriters, fire officials and real estate professionals to see how frequently fires occur near a property and how severe a fire would be if one were to occur. We happily shared how Wildfirescores.com uses state-of-the-art software modeling to analyze local vegetation, weather and topography data in order to generate predictions of fire behavior.

RedZone Wildfire Scores Wildland Urban Interface Conference      

WUI Conference Keynote Speaches

Attendees were able to listen to keynote speeches on subjects including: communities regularly being built within the urban interface, firefighter health, leadership and general sessions focused on past events. 2016’s largest and one of its most destructive events was the Fort McMurray Fire from May in Alberta, Canada. The evacuation of 88,000 people with one escape route was quite the tale. RedZone also attended SDG&E’s presentation that highlighted their weather supercomputer. The computer is being used to predict wildfire using a sophisticated weather model that has proven effective for Southern California, especially for Santa Ana Wind Event Fires.

Every year it is exciting to see the WUI conference bring together fire experts from around the world.  We are happy to be a part of that collaborative effort to better protect communities from wildfire and we look forward to next year’s WUI conference.

nasa heat shields

NASA Heat Shields Set to Save Firefighters’ Lives

One of the worst firefighter tragedies in history compelled NASA researcher, Mary Beth Wusk, to help develop a better emergency fire shelter. Wusk saw a news article on the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona in 2013, where a team of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots firefighters was overrun with fire. The team deployed their emergency fire shelters, but unfortunately did not survive. Wusk thought the needs of an advanced fire shelter matched the needs of a project she was currently working on at NASA: Flexible thermal protection systems for space vehicle re-entry.

After some initial research and email correspondence, Wusk and co-researcher, Anthony Calomino, were put in touch with the Forest Service’s National Technology and Development Center. It turns out the Forest Service was already searching for new materials to construct an improved emergency fire shelter. NASA and the Forest Service formed a joint team, called CHIEFS (Convective Heating for Improvement for Emergency Fire Shelters). CHIEFS began testing materials and pattern designs with the goal of putting a new design into service by 2018.

NASA heat shields

Real-world test of the new Emergency Fire Shelter prototype during a controlled burn

 

The Future of NASA Heat Shields in Firefighting

Initial test results proved that the materials performed well, but the design itself had some flaws. Flames were still able to penetrate the shelter via tiny seams in the material or under the bottom.  Though NASA’s contribution to the project is coming to an end, the Forest Service is continuing to evaluate additional designs using the NASA developed materials. The Forest Service plans to test these designs this coming fire season. They are hoping the winning design will be ready for firefighter use by their 2018 goal.

 

 

NASA Video on the new Emergency Shelter Technology

 

 

History of the Emergency Fire Shelter

Innovation Out of Tragedy

Firefighting remains a dangerous occupation, and on occasion firefighters still pay the ultimate sacrifice. Our country has a longstanding history of learning from our tragedies, and planning how to prevent them from happening in the future.  The Loop Fire near Sylmar, California, in 1966 is an example of a deadly wildfire which led to a revolution in fire policy and safety protocols.  That fire, which took the lives of 12 firefighters, yielded greater understanding and safety awareness of the perils posed by certain types of woodland terrain.  It also prompted requirements related to lookouts, checklists, and equipment standards that are still in use today.

 

Sources:

https://www.nasa.gov/feature/langley/nasa-works-with-us-forest-service-to-improve-fire-shelters

https://www.nasa.gov/langley/nasa-technology-may-help-protect-wildland-firefighters

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

http://www.latimes.com/science/la-na-nasa-fire-shelters-20151026-story.html

Wildfire Partners Cold Springs Fire

RedZone is Excited to Support Wildfire Partners

Wildfire Partners is a home mitigation program aimed at helping Boulder County residents prepare for wildfire. RedZone, in cooperation with the county, is beginning its second year of facilitating the program. The goal of Wildfire Partners is to assist homeowners who live in the mountains and foothills, and guide them through the process of hardening their home to survive a wildfire. Some of those tasks may include clearing combustible material around the house, clearing trees that could convey fire to the structure, and adding flashing between the home and wood surfaces such as decks or fencing.

Want to learn about how Wildfire Partners could be implemented in your community? Please contact RedZone for more details.

Since 2014, more than 1000 participating homeowners and 30 partner organizations have helped make this program a success. Wildfire Partners is a nationally recognized model for wildfire mitigation that is incorporated into the county’s building code. The program is funded by Boulder County, along with a $1.5 million grant from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and a $1.125 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

“The old approach was firefighters were responsible for saving homes from wildfire. The new approach, the new emphasis, is shifting responsibility to homeowners. This program empowers homeowners to be able to take that personal responsibility,” said Jim Webster of Boulder County.

The Wildfire Partners Process

Homeowners in the program actively participate in a comprehensive assessment of their home with a Wildfire Mitigation Specialist, and receive a customized report that identifies the weak links in your home’s defenses. This report will include a checklist of items to mitigate, annotated photos of vulnerabilities, and additional information on wildfire mitigation and preparedness. Homeowners may also be eligible for financial reward after completing all the required mitigation actions, and upon completion, will receive a mitigation certificate which is recognized by many national insurance carriers.

Wildfire Partners Results

Homeowners who live in the wildland urban interface (WUI) have already seen successful results, in particular with the Cold Springs Fire in Nederland, Colorado, in July of 2016.
The video below, “Home Survival Success Stories”, contains interviews of actual homeowners affected by the Cold Springs fire, and contains aerial drone footage of homes in the Nederland area which were completely surrounded by fire, but which survived the blaze nonetheless.

By completing mitigation measures correctly, homeowners will rest easy knowing they have acted responsibly to help protect their families and the first responders who may be called upon in the event of a wildfire.