In recent years, wildfire has carved an increasingly destructive path across the globe. Areas like Greenland and Siberia, where wildfires were once virtually nonexistent, have experienced blazes due to a warming climate. In places that are historically subjected to wildfire, including California, Australia, and parts of Europe, climate change and increased human development into fire-prone landscapes have led to some of the most destructive fires on record. The Australian fire season recently ended after burning more than 186,000 square kilometers/72,000 square miles, destroying over 5,900 buildings (including 2,779 homes) and killing at least 34 people. These fires were particularly destructive to the animals in Australia, killing an estimated one billion and even driving some endangered species to extinction.
Wildfires are nothing new. They are part of nature and we have lived with them for our entire time on this earth. But despite it being one of our oldest challenges we still don’t fully understand some basic questions about wildfire, such as how it spreads through a landscape and how to build communities that can withstand it. Yet, we keep pushing developments further and further into the wildland setting – the scene for potential disasters. Billions of dollars are spent annually on fighting wildfires, but it is a beast that cannot be tamed. Focusing on fighting these fires will not save all communities at risk. Instead, we need to understand wildfires better and figure out how we can adapt to them so that in the future they will be events and not disasters.
This is where research comes in. Traditionally, fire research has tended to focus on structure fires and how fires start and spread within buildings. Relatively little attention has been paid to wildfire, how it moves through the landscape and what happens when it interacts with our urban communities. When we design a tall building there are strict requirements in the code to ensure that fire won’t spread from one compartment to another and people can evacuate safety. If we take the same number of dwelling units and spread them out as single-family houses over a beautiful area bordering wildland, the requirements to limit fire spread and ensure evacuation are suddenly much more relaxed. Rarely is the event of mass evacuation of a development due to wildfire considered in the planning and design of the community.
With increased density of housing stock in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) a wildfire can quickly become an urban conflagration. Recent events have ignited the interests of researchers, and I am happy to report that the largest fire research project currently underway in the world (in terms of scope and the number of researchers involved) is aimed squarely at answering some of these important wildfire questions. The prospect of such an ambitious project focused on wildfire would have been hard to fathom just a decade ago.
The project, called PyroLife, started on April 1 and aims to shed more light on wildfire unknowns while also training a new generation of interdisciplinary experts in holistic fire management. Over the next four years, 15 PhD candidates at 10 leading European universities and institutes will each tackle a separate wildfire project focused on areas such as risk quantification, risk reduction, and risk communication. Their work will be supported by 21 international partners that include governments, fire services, industry, and non-profit agencies from 10 European countries as well as Canada, New Zealand, and the United States. As part of the PyroLife consortium, NFPA will host some of the PhD students working on these topics. We are keen to share our experience from our successful Firewise USA® program, as well as our data and general fire expertise. You can learn more about the project at pyrolife.lessonsonfire.eu
The project is globally integrated by design. Combining the strengths and knowledge bases of each country involved in the project, as well as the different scientific disciplines of the researchers, will be key to tackling a problem as massive as wildfire. A great illustration of this point is the project lead and founder, Dr. Cathelijne Stoof of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, a nation not known for having a wildfire problem. However, the Dutch are no strangers to finding innovative solutions to managing problems presented by Mother Nature; roughly a third of the country sits below sea level, and flooding is a constant threat.
“The Dutch are world-famous for the way we live with water,” Stoof said in a statement announcing the project. “By working with water management experts and landscape designers, we will use this knowledge on planning, management, and communication to study how to design resilient landscapes and communities to live with fire.”
Northern Europe’s penchant for engineering solutions to challenging community threats, combined with the fire science expertise of Southern Europe and the US, is perhaps the recipe we need to successfully take on the wildfire problem. Recent events have made it clear that wildfire is one of the great challenges of our time for the global research community, and we will need as many great minds and perspectives as we can muster to confront it.
Thankfully, there are now more resources and effort being put into this issue than at any time that I can remember. Such a global problem is going to take a global effort to solve, and PyroLife is a great start.
A shorter version of this article appeared in the March/April edition of NFPA Journal. Visit www.nfpa.org to learn more about NFPA Journal, Firewise USA® and NFPA wildfire resources.