The threat to people and property from wildland fires is increasing, fueled by a combination of urban sprawl, climate change and lack of understanding. Unfortunately, the scientific knowledge base that we have today is becoming outdated and inadequate. We need increased support for scientific research to help build a new generation of fire behavior models to better estimate the causes, risks and impacts of wildland fires.
As this article is being written, the western United States is suffering once more devastating wildfires with their unbearable toll of human lives and property destruction.
This is occurring as Santa Barbara and Ventura counties recover from the infamous Thomas Fire, which began in December of 2017 raged for six weeks in California, burning 282,000 acres, destroying 1,300 structures and resulting in the deaths of 22 people in the ensuing mudslides.
The Thomas Fire wasn’t even the worst wildland fire of 2017. Multiple wildfires exploded on night of Oct. 8 in wine country in Northern California and burned for weeks, killing 44 people, many of them elderly. Those fires resulted in $9.4 billion in insured damaged and cost the US economy $85 billion.
Wildland fires are certainly not limited to the US. In Sweden, near-record temperatures and sustained drought have triggered unprecedented wildfires that are spreading as far north as the Arctic Circle, and Greece is experiencing one of its worst fire seasons ever.
Last year was the second worst in the US on record for wildland fires since 1952, with more than 10 million acres charred. The worst year was 2015, which means the two worst years on record in the last 65 years have occurred over the last three. It should be noted that even if some of the fires described above burned for weeks or months, the bulk of their impact was felt in a matter of days or hours.
At this point, you’d think that funding for much needed fire research would be a top priority – but unfortunately, the exact opposite is occurring. Federal grants are drying up like brush in a hot breeze, even as the threat continues to heat up.
There seems to be very little recognition that the field of fire protection engineering needs more attention, and very little understanding that the gap is widening between our outdated knowledge base and the increased severity of the wildland fire threat.
We build dikes and levees in flood zones, we devote resources to studying, analyzing and predicting the path and severity of hurricanes, and we’re fascinated by the storm chasers who follow tornadoes. But when it comes to wildland fires, the level of investment is certainly not commensurate with the extent of the problem. In the aftermath of these fires, their impact and the need to mitigate their impact fades quickly from the public consciousness, only to be sorely remembered by the people who have been directly impacted.
The tools in place today, the building and zoning codes, the best practices, the evacuation procedures, the models on how fires move and interact with vegetation or with houses, the strategies for controlled burns, these all date back decades and are becoming more outdated every day. Our only hope resides in the valuable experience accumulated by the managers and firefighters who shoulder the responsibility of protecting us from wildland fires and mitigating their impact. However, even they need help as we lack the proper scientific tools to quantify the current threat from extreme wildland fires that are becoming more intense, rapid and deadly every year.
Why the problem is getting worse?
A number of factors contribute to the dramatic increase, not necessarily in the number of fires, but in the ferocity of wildland fires and the damage they are causing to life, property, the economy and the environment.
1 Climate change: Severe drought has created an elevated fire risk across vast swaths of the western and southern United States, Europe and other hot spots across the globe. In California, for example, the historic natural cycle of fire season from late spring to early fall, is now becoming year round. Wildland fires are now occurring in places like Kansas and Tennessee; essentially the risk zone is expanding from west to east and south to north, causing destruction in places that had little exposure before. Of course, climate change doesn’t ignite fires, but it does contribute to creating tinderbox conditions.
2 Urban Sprawl: Here’s a shocking statistic: 38% of new construction in the western US is taking place on land that is at the wildland-urban interface. In other words, people are building homes in areas where they are intermingling with wildland fuel – a disaster waiting to happen.
3 Lack of Awareness: Not only are people building in fire-prone areas, they aren’t taking the necessary precautions, believing that tragedy won’t strike them.This lack of concern is exacerbated by the fact that many residents have moved from the city, so they don’t fully understand the wildland fire threat. The result is that houses get built without proper fire mitigation features, the surrounding brush and vegetation is not cleared away, people don’t have an evacuation plan, and they’re not aware of the dangers of firebrands, those potentially deadly embers that can travel hundreds of feet.
4 Lack of Planning: When we see images of fires leaping from one house to another as flames level an entire community, it’s clear that municipal planners, zoning boards and housing developers lack the necessary tools to design the larger community to be more fire resilient.
What can science do?
Wildland fires are not really a natural disaster, like hurricanes or tornadoes. An estimated 90% of wildland fires are caused by human activity, either accidental or intentional. For example, the devastating Napa Valley fire is currently being blamed on power lines that were blown down by strong winds. Campfires, maintenance work, and heavy machinery are a common cause. And it has been so dry that fires have been caused by something so innocuous as a bicyclist scraping a metal pedal against a rock, creating a spark.
Clearly, research into the causes of wildland fires and disseminating that knowledge in a broad educational campaign can raise awareness and help reduce the number of fires.
But research into causation is only a first step. We need to understand and create models that show how wildland fires spread under extreme conditions, what triggers accelerations, what feedback can exist with the atmosphere, and how to predict their path when they accelerate.
We need new risk and impact models to help firefighters determine where to devote their resources, which houses or neighborhoods to evacuate and what routes to take. With today’s technology, it should be possible to create models that merge data from a variety of sources, including drones and satellites. As a former firefighter myself, I believe this information is critical to saving the lives of both civilians and first responders.
At Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Mass., we are doing research in all of these areas, quantifying risk, looking at the source (the fire), the target (a structure) and analyzing how fire moves from source to target. We’re examining heat transfer from the fire to a structure to analyze how the fire will ignite it. We’re investigating firebrands, trying to determine how they travel and how they ignite new fires.
WPI operates the largest fire test lab in academia. We have a brand-new wind tunnel, built with the University of Notre Dame and the U.S. Forest Service, to help us better understand the influence of wind on fires. This tunnel can actually be dismantled and brought to the field in order to conduct real-world tests under prescribed wind conditions.
In addition to scientific research into how best to fight fires, we also looking at planning efforts that individual homeowners and communities at large can take to mitigate the destructive impact of wildland fires.
We need to understand how to make individual structures more resilient and to incorporate those recommendations into building codes in high-risk areas. The idea is not to attempt the impossible – we’re not suggesting that it’s practical to try to make a house completely fireproof. But efforts can be made to use building, roofing and siding materials that make the house less vulnerable to flying embers. Maybe wooden fencing or a wooden deck connected to the house isn’t the best idea.
And we need to talk about community design. How do we prevent a wildland fire from becoming a conflagration that leaps from house to house, destroying an entire community?
We must think about ways to mix high-risk structures with less flammable areas. For example, we can create buffer zones consisting of parking lots or areas cleared of vegetation. Instead of having an entire community at risk, we can create a patchwork of small clusters of homes protected by a buffer zone in high risk areas. This can decrease the intensity of the fire, slow it down and break it into smaller fire fronts, which are easier to fight.
There is no easy answer or one-size-fits-all solution to the threat posed by wildland fires. We need to attack the problem on all fronts, to combine individual small-scale steps with larger community re-design efforts that are based on the latest scientific research.
The tools we have now are inadequate to the task because they were developed in another era, an era before urban sprawl, before people in large numbers began living at the wildland-urban interface, and before climate change exacerbated the situation.
The goal of our research into wildland fires is provide the scientific foundation that will enable us to educate the population, build the models, develop the tools, write the codes, and establish the best practices that will save lives, property, businesses and communities.
For more information, go to www.wpi.edu/academics/departments/fire-protection-engineering