“Fear the ember”

Demonstration of burning embers on structure
Screen capture from video. Credit: WSPA

The wind-blown burning ember test on an actual structure that Wildfire Today told you about on March 17 actually happened on Thursday. Setting a structure on fire is one thing, but doing it inside another structure is rather unusual, to say the least. Yesterday the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) Research Center in South Carolina, using 105 huge fans and spark-generators, launched embers at a structure to demonstrate what can happen when a wind-driven fire approaches a poorly prepared structure. The result is predictable, as you can see in this video from a local station, WSPA.

Below is another video, this time from NBC:

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Here is an excerpt from News Channel 7, WSPA, which includes  a few words from Jack Cohen of the U. S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, who has conducted a great deal of research on the ignitability of structures.

A 1200-square-foot test home was on the turntable for the wildfire demonstration. Part of it had vinyl siding, part of it cement-fiber siding and part had wood-fiber siding. Part of the roof was wood shakes, while the rest was asphalt shingles. There were also two kinds of rain gutters on the house: vinyl and aluminum.

The house had pine straw on the roof, in the gutters and surrounding the base of the home, as many homes have for landscaping.

For the simulation, metal tubes that look like tractor-trailer smoke stacks belched sparks as the fans blew the embers onto the house. Almost immediately, the pine straw around the house burst into flames.

The vinyl siding started to melt away from the house. The pine straw in the gutters was also on fire. The vinyl gutters also melted and fell, causing the ground beneath to burn even hotter. The aluminum gutters stayed in place, but that only kept the burning pine straw next to the wooden fascia boards of the house.

The wood shakes eventually caught on fire as the embers burned holes into them. The asphalt shingles were charred by the embers and burning pine straw, but they didn’t allow the fire to burn through to the wood beneath.

After the fires were doused, Julie Rochman, president and CEO of IBHS, said her main message for homeowners was to notice what happened. “That fire, which starts from sparks, from embers, burns very quickly, which is why my theme for today is, fear the ember.”

U.S. Forest Service official Jack Cohen said it’s important for homeowners to realize that it’s not always a wall of fire that destroys homes during a wildfire. All it takes is the embers. He suggested that homeowners near wooded areas remove any combustible materials from around their homes.

He also said they need to look at the building materials used on their homes and, if possible, replace wood shake roofs and wood or vinyl siding.

“The things that ignited on this structure are easily changed, but the only person that has authority, the only people that have authority to make that change are the homeowners. It’s private property,” he says.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.