How to prevent your house from burning during a wildfire

We can benefit from Dr. Jack Cohen’s research

Above: Screenshot from the NFPA video below.

In light of the article posted earlier today reporting on Secretary Ryan Zinke’s order for the Department of the Interior to be more aggressive about conducting fuel treatment activities to better protect facilities from burning in a wildfire, this video is very appropriate.

Nobody knows more than Dr. Jack Cohen about why and how structures burn. He also knows what homeowners can do to make their homes fire resistant.

Before recently retiring, Dr. Cohen was a Fire Science Researcher with the U.S. Forest Service.

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.
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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.

How to prevent homes from igniting during wildfires

ember shower on home
Ember shower on a structure. Screen grab from the NFPA video.

Jack Cohen, a research physical scientist with the U.S. Forest Service, has spent much of his career studying how structures ignite during wildfires. In this video produced by the NFPA, Mr. Cohen expounds on that topic and talks about the actions that homeowners can take to help their home survive the impacts of flames and embers.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Daniel.

The Atlantic, on wildfire research and the Yarnell Hill Fire


The Atlantic has produced two very good pieces on wildland fire.

One is the video below, about research into the science of combustion and how fires spread. It was filmed at the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory and has excellent production values and photography. Some of the researchers featured will be familiar to those who follow the topic; they include Mark Finney, Jack Cohen, and Sarah McAllister.

The other is a long-form article about the Yarnell Hill Fire that killed 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots June 30, 2013. There have been several similar articles, but this one, written by Brian Mockenhaupt, is better researched and written than some. In addition to describing the fire, and the fire fight, It includes information about what went on behind the scenes at various dispatch and coordination levels, as well as the personal lives of the firefighters.

Here is a brief excerpt:

“To our families and friends, we’re crazy,” [Crew Superintendent] Eric Marsh wrote in the spring of 2013, in a sort of Granite Mountain manifesto addressed to the town of Prescott. “Why do we want to be away from home so much, work such long hours, risk our lives, and sleep on the ground 100 nights a year? Simply, it’s the most fulfilling thing any of us have ever done.”


Marsh took the lead in hiring new recruits, and focused as much on character as on stamina. “When was the last time you lied?” he asked in every interview. “Tell me about that.” Truth telling was a guiding principle for Marsh. He had quit drinking more than a decade earlier, and being honest with himself and others had become a big part of his sobriety.


Like many others who fought the Yarnell Hill Fire and who knew the hotshots who died, [Prescott Fire Department Wildland Division Chief] Darrell Willis has spent a lot of time asking himself why they did what they did. Part of the answer he’s come up with involves the very natural urge to fight and protect our own. “They wanted to reengage,” he said, standing by the posters. “Sure, they could sit up there in the black. But if they could try to get back in the game, they were going to. What they had been doing was lost. And that happens a lot. You put a day’s worth of work into something, and all of the sudden it’s gone, and you have to have a new starting point somewhere. There’s a lot of sweat and expended energy. So what do we do, just sit up here and watch it go by? They knew there was an evacuation going on, they knew there were people staying in their houses. So what would the public think? ‘You’re not going to help us? Why did you even show up?’ ”


“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.