Wildfires, along with their tremendous toll of human lives and injury, property destruction, destruction of forests and eco and biosystems, have been all too common in recent years. It has become apparent to experts who study fires and to the millions of people who live in wildfire areas that these fires are, unfortunately, no longer uncommon. A multifaceted approach to wildfire management encompasses amongst many other goals, prevention of wildfires, training to assure firefighter expertise, and identifying populations and property most at risk in proximity to wildfire zones.
All fires, regardless of cause, require the same three elements: Heat, fuel and oxygen. The absence of any one of these elements means a fire cannot burn. As this is a wildfire fire discussion let’s consider where these “ingredients” come from:
Heat: Heat ignites a fire. Heat maintains a fire. Heat allows fire to spread. Natural fire heat sources are typically lightening, or lava. In recent years increased temperatures have contributed to wildfires as well. Human caused igniters that provide heat sources are listed above (campfires cigarettes etc...)
Fuel: Natural causes would be dead leaves and trees. Human causes are noted in the above discussion of causes of wildfires. Fuel, in short is any combustible material.
Oxygen: Air contains 21% oxygen. Fire usually requires 16% oxygen to burn. Burning fuel reacting with oxygen contributes to the embers, smoke and gases associated with fire.
Early warning systems to alert the public to fire are coordinated through various monitoring agencies. The weather warning that is perhaps most familiar, is that from the National Weather Service. Fire warnings from the National Weather service are categorized as:
Fire Weather Watch: This is an alert that predicts upcoming fire danger is possible due to weather conditions, but not imminent or currently occurring. This is the lowest probability warning.
Red Flag Warning: This alert says take action: If the warning is issued, use of open flames is considered dangerous and requires extreme caution. This warning is issued together with land management agencies when fire danger is ongoing. Red Flag warnings indicate high or extreme probability.
Extreme Fire Behavior: This alert warns of a wildfire that has high probability of becoming out of control. Characteristics of fires that predict extreme risk are:
- Fire is fast moving at fast speed
- Fire is crowning and /or spotting. Crowning means that the fire is moving though the tops of trees or shrubs with a pattern independent of the surface fire.
- Presence of fire whirls: A fire whirl is also known as a fire devil. It is a whirlwind composed of flame or ash.
- Strong Convection Column: This is a rising column of fire debris, ash, smoke.
Wildfire Management currently has multiple layers of shared agency cooperation and interstate cooperation. Firefighting equipment and hot shot crews are shared amongst states, federal government, and multiple agencies across the USA and year-round.
The National Fire Protection Association, (NFPA), recognizing the increasing numbers of wildfires, the tremendous loss of homes and properties and the estimated billions of dollars in losses due to wildfires launched a program to “Outthink Wildfires”. The interface of wildland and urban areas (WUI) has been identified as a site of some of the most significant losses from wildfires. The NFPA program recognizes the WUI as zone of great importance in protecting lives and property. Fire services are critical and essential for controlling, managing, and extinguishing wildland fires. However, Fire Services cannot protect all people and property in the path of a wildfire.
The NFPA plan envisions significant transformation to lessening the impact of wildfire damage in the WUI zone over time with implementation of the following five tenets:
- Require homes and businesses in the WUI to be ignition
- Enforce current codes and standards as well as sound land use practices. New development and rebuilding in the WUI should be done with measures that resist ignition from wildfire embers and flames.
- Fire Departments for all communities in the WUI must be prepared to respond effectively and safely to wildfires. This involves specific training for wildland fires. It requires the departments have personal protective equipment for all members of the Firefighter safety should be a top priority.
- Government must increase resources for vegetative fuel management. There are over 100 million acres of federal land which are at. Participation of communities high or severe risk of wildfire. The magnitude of the problem requires major efforts for
- The public needs to understand their role and take action to decrease wildfire In short, the NFPA points out that fire seasons are now year-round. Every year the number of acres burned is increasing in danger zones, therefore, communities must be proactive in developing preventative measures. The NFPA also points out that support from government must be sustained over time to be maximally effective.
Firewise USA is a program with similar goals as Outthink Wildfires with a different focus. Firewise USA focuses on local community solutions to reduce damage to people and property for communities threatened by wildfire. Residents can also focus on how to live with the threat of wildfires. The program initiated in 2002 with 12 pilot programs and has expanded to approximately 1000 communities in over 40 states with an 80% retention rate. The Firewise Program is geared to solutions that are enacted before a wildfire starts.
To learn more about Firewise, and/or to enroll in the program, visit the NFPA website. States with Firewise programs can be found with an Internet Search. The National Forest Service National Fire Protection also has Firewise information.
Smokey the Bear was created in 1944 as an ad campaign for the US Forest Service. Smokey the Bear’s message was aimed to educate people of all ages, including school children, about the dangers of unplanned fires caused by humans. Smokey reminded us of this message for more than 50 years. In 2001 the word forest fires was changed to wildfires. In the decades since Smokey first told us to treat the wildlands with respect in order to prevent fires, a lot has changed. Suburbia has expanded, so that homes and business live on the edge of wildlands. Our efforts of prevention have therefore, expanded as well. We now share responsibilities for prevention of fire not only when we are physically in the wildlands, but for prevention of loss of life, injury and property damage when we live in areas that encroach on wildlands.
Smokey the Bear told us for decades” Only YOU can prevent forest fires”. This slogan was ultimately changed to “Only WE can prevent Forest Fires”, an appropriate message that remains relevant today.