The home ignition problem

“We don’t have a forest fire problem, we have a home ignition problem. As soon as you come to that realization, it changes your view on wildfire.”

Silverthorne, Colorado 2018 Buffalo Mountain Fire
Fuel breaks at Silverthorne, Colorado during the 2018 Buffalo Mountain Fire. USFS.

Below is an excerpt from an article at the Montana Free Press:

BOZEMAN — Ray Rasker, who has researched wildfire for more than a decade as the executive director of Bozeman-based nonprofit Headwaters Economics, makes a bold claim about wildfire and its human impacts.

“We don’t have a forest fire problem, we have a home ignition problem,” he said. “As soon as you come to that realization, it changes your view on wildfire.”

(UPDATE: Ray Rasker contacted us in a comment, below, to say,  “The top quote [above] was something I mentioned to the reporter as something that was said by Dr. Jack Cohen, a long-time Fire Science Researcher with the U.S. Forest Service. It’s not my quote and I’m not trying to take credit for Jack’s insightful comment.”)

Often we hear about the costs of suppressing wildfires, but the cost of fire trucks, firefighters, dozers, and aircraft are only part of that cost.

Another excerpt:

Some of a community’s willingness to change growth policies, subdivision regulations, building codes, and the like can be attributed to economics. Although significant, the money spent putting out a wildfire is minor — about 9 percent — relative to fire’s total financial impact, Rasker said. “Fifty percent of the cost is borne by the community. That’s businesses that close, that’s the loss of tax revenue during the fire, that’s the cost of reconstruction — restoring your wetland, for example. Your tax base goes up in flames.”

When economic losses become severe enough, elected officials find the political cover they need to push for additional regulation. Rasker said he’s seen the dynamic at work in several communities CPAW has worked with, including Flagstaff, Arizona; Boulder, Colorado; and San Diego, California. “Now it’s not planning as a liberal agenda; now it suddenly becomes something that’s fiscally responsible.”

Such regulations can include mandating better egress roads to make subdivision evacuations safer, requiring new buildings to be constructed with fire-resistant material, and developing landscaping guidelines for homeowners. There was a time, Rasker said, when municipal fire codes mandating safety measures like sprinkler systems and marked fire exits were all but nonexistent, resulting in casualties. “In an urban environment, we’ve fixed this problem,” he said. “But when the houses are surrounded by trees on the outside of town, suddenly none of those rules apply,” Rasker said, referencing a lack of regulations and enforcement in many rural areas.

California to activate National Guard to help reduce wildfire risk

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has put together a list of 35 projects around the state where they intend to reduce the wildfire risk for residents. This follows multiple large fire disasters in 2017 and 2018 that killed over 100 people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes. In many areas those not directly affected by the flames were exposed to hazardous levels of smoke for days or weeks at a time.

The State will establish incident bases in proximity to vulnerable communities and coordinate fuels treatment operations from those facilities utilizing the Incident Command System. The Governor will activate the National Guard to help complete the work.

The projects, identified and planned at the local level, are intended to reduce the public safety risk for over 200 communities. Examples of work to be done include removal of hazardous dead trees, vegetation clearing, creation of fuel breaks and community defensible spaces, and establishment of ingress and egress corridors. CAL FIRE believes these projects can be implemented immediately if their recommendations are taken to enable the work.

Recognizing that entry level employees in California are not highly compensated, and often have challenges finding affordable housing in areas where they work, the state will provide additional government housing for seasonal state employees working on forest management and fuels reduction.

In addition to large-scale fuel reduction projects near communities, CAL FIRE understands that residents have to also do their part to reduce the flammable material in their home ignition zone within 100 feet of structures, and especially immediately adjacent — within 5 feet.

Details on the projects can be found online at http://calfire.ca.gov/fire_prevention/downloads/FuelReductionProjectList.pdf. CAL FIRE expects to keep the list updated.

Priority Landscapes wildfire protection
(Click to see a larger version)

The entire 28-page report about this new initiative can be found here.

First National Legacy Award presented to Forest Service retiree

Above: Dr. Jack Cohen makes a presentation at the 2011 Fire Litigation Conference in San Diego. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Dr. Jack Cohen received the first National Legacy Award given by the U.S. Forest Service, National Association of State Foresters, National Fire Protection Association, and International Association of Fire Chiefs in recognition of outstanding career-long contributions to wildfire mitigation as an alternative to suppression. Dr. Cohen helped develop the U.S. National Fire Danger Rating System and developed calculations for wildland firefighters’ safe zones; created defensible space principles, which resulted in the Firewise program; the Home Ignition Zone; and conducted research on ember ignitions and structure ignitability.

His research laid the groundwork for nearly all of today’s work on wildland urban interface risk reduction. Until his 2016 retirement, he was a research scientist at Missoula Technology and Development Center. The award was presented at the IAFC WUI Conference in Reno, Nevada.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Robert.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

60 minutes: “Wildfires on the Rise”

Above: One of the homes that survived the Eiler Fire in northern California, August, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The CBS TV show 60 Minutes recently aired a story titled, “Wildfires on the rise due to drought and climate change“, concentrating on how to deal with the increasing number of wildfires, and particularly what homeowners can do to protect their investments.

Below is an excerpt from the transcript:

Events like [the Yarnell Hill Fire that killed 19 member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots] add urgency to the work at a U.S. Forest Service lab. In this building in Missoula, Montana, scientists study how fires spread.

And one of them, Jack Cohen, made a specialty of how to better defend homes.

Jack Cohen: Clearly we’re not gonna solve the problem by telling people they’re gonna have to move their houses into a city from being out in the woods.

Steve Inskeep: Not gonna happen.

Jack Cohen: Right? It’s not gonna happen for a whole bunch of reasons, one of which is that the population who live there, including me– aren’t gonna do it.

Steve Inskeep: Is it reasonable for a homeowner in that situation, a fire bearing down on their neighborhood to just say, “Look, I pay my taxes. There are firefighters, there’s a fire department. The forest service, if it’s public land, has thousands of firefighters. It’s their job; put it out?”

Jack Cohen: So what if they can’t? Then the question becomes one of, “Well, if the extreme wildfires are inevitable does that mean that wildland-urban fire disasters are inevitable?” And my answer to that is no.

Nominations being accepted for Wildfire Mitigation Awards

wildfire mitigation awardDo you know of someone or an organization that has achieved success or set a good example for wildfire mitigation?

The October 30th deadline for nominations for a 2017 Wildfire Mitigation Award is approaching. If you know an individual or organization that is doing great work in wildfire preparedness and mitigation, please try to help them get the recognition they deserve by nominating them for an award.

Established in 2014 in response to an overwhelming number of great wildfire mitigation efforts across the nation, the Wildfire Mitigation Awards are the highest national honor one can receive for outstanding work and significant program impact in wildfire preparedness and mitigation.

The awards are jointly sponsored by the National Association of State Foresters, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the National Fire Protection Association, and the U.S. Forest Service. They are designed to recognize outstanding service in wildfire preparedness and safety across a broad spectrum of activities and among a variety of individuals and organizations. By honoring their achievements, the award sponsors also seek to increase public recognition and awareness of the value of wildfire mitigation efforts.

Nominations can be can be completed and submitted online. Additional information about the Wildfire Mitigation Awards is available online, as are the criteria and guidelines.

For additional information, contact Meghan Rhodes, Wildland Fire Programs Coordinator with the IAFC, at (703) 896 – 4839, MRhodes (at) iafc.org.