President signs executive order to mitigate wildfire risks to Federal buildings

President Obama today signed an Executive Order on Wildland-Urban Interface Federal Risk Mitigation, intended to mitigate wildfire risks to Federal buildings located in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), reduce risks to people, and help minimize property loss to wildfire.

For new buildings and alterations to existing buildings greater than 5,000 square feet on Federal land within the WUI at moderate or greater risk to wildfire, the Executive Order directs Federal agencies to apply wildfire-resistant design provisions delineated in the 2015 edition of the International Wildland-Urban Interface Code promulgated by the International Code Council, or an equivalent code. These codes, which encompass the current understanding of wildfire hazard potential, will help increase safety and protect the lives of people who live or work in these buildings.

Wildfire Briefing, February 5, 2016

The above image is from Headwaters Economics

Land use planning to reduce wildfire risk

Headquarters Economics released a report about how five cities have used innovative land use planning techniques as a way to adapt to the growing threat from wildfires. The authors met with city planners, elected officials, and firefighters in Austin, Texas; Boulder, Colorado; Flagstaff, Arizona; San Diego, California; and Santa Fe, New Mexico—all communities with a recent history of wildfire and a reputation for being problem solvers.

wildfire planning map
Headwaters Economics

Prescribed fire escapes in Florida

In St. Johns County, Florida on Tuesday a prescribed fire intended to treat 140 acres off County Road 208 escaped control when an unexpected 20-25 mph wind gust scattered burning embers. About 270 acres later the Florida Forest Service was able to contain the blaze.

Spokesperson Julie Maddux said statewide in 2015 the Florida Forest Service burned more than 236,000 acres during prescribed fires and none of them got out of control.

U.S. Forest Service releases findings on the effects of drought for forests and rangelands

The U.S. Forest Service this week released a new report, Effects of Drought on Forests and Rangelands in the United States: A Comprehensive Science Synthesis, that provides a national assessment of peer-reviewed scientific research on the impacts of drought on U.S. forests and rangelands. This report will help the Forest Service better manage forests and grasslands impacted by climate change.

“Our forests and rangelands are national treasures, and because they are threatened, we are threatened,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “This report confirms what we are seeing, that every region of the country is impacted by the direct and indirect effects of drought conditions and volatile weather patterns. Sixty million Americans rely on drinking water that originates on our 193 million acres of national forest and grasslands. They support 200,000 jobs and contribute over $13 billion to local economies every year.”

Utah seeks jail time for drone operators that interfere with wildfire operations

Last year there were numerous instances across the West of drones flying into the airspace above active fires and interfering with the operations of firefighting aircraft.

From the AP:

..A new proposal in the Utah Legislature aims to address the growing problem by creating a possible penalty of jail time for people who fly drones within 3 miles of a wildfire.

A House committee was scheduled to discuss the proposal Tuesday afternoon but the hearing was postponed.

Republican Rep. Kraig Powell of Heber City, the proposal’s sponsor, said he asked to postpone the meeting so he could get more input from interested parties. He said he may add exemptions for certain entities, such as public utility companies that need to use drones to see if the fire will impact gas lines.

Jason Curry of the Utah Division of Forestry said he hopes lawmakers back the bill…

“I really hope it doesn’t take a major mishap and somebody to lose their life for the public to take it seriously,” Curry said.

Washington state treats less land with prescribed fire than their neighbors

Washington prescribed fire acres

From the Seattle Times:

Washington lags far behind neighboring states in using controlled burns to thin out dangerously overgrown woodlands.

After back-to-back years of catastrophic forest fires, some state lawmakers want that to change.

“I’ve had it. I think it is time to delve into the policy,” said state Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, who represents a large swath of North Central Washington scorched in last year’s record-setting fires that burned more than 1 million acres.

Parlette is sponsoring a pair of “fight fire with fire” bills that would require more controlled burns on state lands and loosen smoke regulations to make it easier for federal and private land managers to conduct burns.

Experts say expanding the use of controlled burns is vital to restoring forests to health, leaving them less vulnerable to massive blazes when the summer fire season hits.

But some U.S. Forest Service officials and other critics say the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), led by Commissioner of Public Lands Peter Goldmark, has discouraged controlled burns in recent years because of fears over smoke drifting into communities.

Do residents in the urban interface expect the fire department to save their home in a wildfire?

save home in wildland urban interface

This article first appeared on the WiRe (Wildfire Research) blog. Republished with permission:

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Do people living in the [wildland-urban interface] WUI expect the fire department to save their home in a wildfire?  Many do, but maybe fewer than you think.

Over the past few years, WRWC surveyed nearly 1600 WUI residents in three counties in southwestern Colorado. These surveys asked: “If there is a wildfire on your property, how likely do you think it is that the fire department would save your home?” People could respond on a scale from 1 (Not likely) to 5 (Very likely).

As the graphic shows, about 25% answered that they did not think it was likely (12% for “1”, 13% for “2”), another 24% placed themselves in the middle (“3”), and the remaining 50% thought it was likely (21% for “4” and 29% for “5”). As we typically find, the results look different in different communities, but the overall pattern is fairly robust to community context.

It’s sometimes assumed that everyone living in the wildland-urban interface expects that, no matter how big a wildfire might be, firefighters will be there and able to protect their individual homes. However, fire behavior can get too intense for people to be in the area, and a lack of proper mitigation can increase the danger and/or difficulty of protecting a house. Beyond that, sometimes there’s simply not enough suppression equipment or personnel available for the number of houses exposed at once. This survey question helps get at whether residents think about these factors.

We find that although this expectation is indeed common, far from everybody living in the WUI feels this way. We should consider how this affects the way we communicate about risks with homeowners, and how this can inform broader discussions among the fire service about expectations of protecting homes during wildfire.

Message to Australians in bushfire-prone areas: “Leave and live”

Lorne-Jamieson Track Bushfire
A community impacted by the Lorne-Jamieson Track Bushfire. Country Fire Authority photo.

One of the many fires that have plagued Victoria, Australia in recent weeks, the Lorne-Jamieson Track Bushfire, destroyed 116 homes. With the state being in the midst of their bushfire season fire officials are encouraging residents to leave early if there is a report of a fire, rather than waiting too late — a mistake that has killed civilians who became trapped on roads and overrun by flames.

Below is an excerpt from an article in The Age written by Craig Lapsley, Victoria’s Emergency Management Commissioner.

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“…The only guaranteed way of surviving a bushfire is to not be there. That is the underpinning logic behind leaving early.

Fire is neither logical nor forgiving. Few people are adequately prepared, physically or emotionally, or have sufficient resources to remain and defend their properties. And so the message again this summer is to leave early. The message is captured in the slogan “Leave and live”.

On Christmas day, even after a recommendation to evacuate had been made, there were those in Lorne who chose to “wait and see”, the circumstance that has historically led to most bushfire deaths as people leave late and are caught on the roads, in the open or trapped in homes that cannot be defended.

fire crew Otways bushfire
Anthony Hester and his fire crew at the Otways bushfire in Victoria, Australia. Photo by Hamish Blair.

Larger, more complex questions face our community in the months and years ahead. The issue of land-use planning is one of these. More people are seeking to live deeper in the bush and enabling them to do so safely presents significant challenges.  A more structured approach to private shelters in high bushfire risk developments is one option.

More fundamentally, urban development both around Melbourne and regional centres, is being pushed into forested and even grassland areas that are inherently fire prone. New communities must be planned in a manner that does not inadvertently expose them to risk, be it from bushfire or other natural hazards. There is work being done within governments around this but a significant dialogue remains to be had with the broader community.

How existing communities are strengthened both physically and in terms of social resilience remains one of our biggest challenges. The vast majority of the existing building stock in high risk areas across the state is simply not designed to withstand the passage of a bushfire. This will not change within the foreseeable future. Community based planning that factors this inherent weakness into survival strategies has to play a part in strengthening communities against disaster…”

A county in Colorado where 833 homes burned in a two year period, considers addressing wildfire risk

El Paso County, ColoradoEl Paso County, Colorado is home to the state’s most destructive fires. In 2012, the Waldo Canyon Fire burned more than 18,000 acres, destroyed 347 homes in Colorado Springs and killed two people. Almost exactly a year later, the Black Forest Fire ignited east of the city and burned more than 15,000 acres, 486 homes and killed two people.

Ryan Maye Handy wrote an article in the Colorado Springs Gazette that looks at some of the proposals being considered, and in some cases rejected, that could enhance the area’s ability to live with the inevitable fires still to come. Below is an excerpt.

…While El Paso County has taken some steps to address wildfire risk, land use experts say officials could do much more.

Unlike the city of Colorado Springs, which heavily regulates building in wildfire zones, the county has no universal fire code standard. Instead, it has a patchwork of fire codes and land use regulations that vary between more than 26 fire districts. New subdivisions in wildfire zones must meet special wildfire criteria, but individual homes do not have to be built with fire resistant material or have mitigated properties. County master plans for development, while offering guidelines, are years and in some cases decades out of date and make no mention of wildfire.

Ultimately, economic and logistical concerns have kept the El Paso County commissioners from issuing broad regulations for building in wildfire zones, and the result is that many homeowners and areas remain vulnerable to fire.

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While refraining from adopting county-wide fire codes might spare El Paso County residents economic hardship, the decision doesn’t take into account the economic consequences of managing a wildfire, experts say. Wildfires cost money to fight, typically taxpayer money, and the U.S. Forest Service spends a third of its budget defending homes in wildfire zones….