Author(s): Casey Grant. Published on January 2, 2018.

Modern Scourge

Like urban conflagrations a century ago, wildfire in urban and suburban settings poses one of the greatest fire challenges of our time

As we were a century ago, today we are in the early phases of dealing with a major fire problem. And we have a long way to go to get it under control.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the problem was urban conflagrations, which leveled all or parts of big cities like Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, and Baltimore. Today, suburban communities tucked within the wildland/urban interface (WUI) are at most risk of experiencing large-scale fire devastation. In fact, the magnitude of today’s wildland fire events are comparable to the citywide conflagrations of the last century, with single fires capable of consuming thousands of structures and resulting in scores of fatalities.

Alarmingly, these destructive wildland fire events are increasing in frequency and magnitude, with many rising to historic proportions. In the U.S., nine of the top 10 costliest WUI events of all time have occurred since 1990. This includes the October fires in Northern California, where cumulative property losses are expected to exceed $3 billion, and where 42 people died. In 2016, the Fort McMurray Fire in Western Canada also resulted in direct property losses over $3 billion, with more than 3,000 structures lost and two fatalities. In terms of property loss, both rival the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which resulted in $3.3 billion in losses in 2015 dollars, according to NFPA’s research department.

Over the years, society has largely eliminated the occurrence of massive urban conflagrations through codes, standards, research, education, and technology. Now, we must do the same in the WUI. One of the keys to our success will be gaining a better understanding of the problem through research.

Knowledge gaps in wildfire abound, but there are multiple research projects underway to address some of them, including three through the Fire Protection Research Foundation. This includes a project called “Fire Ember Production from Wildland and Structural Fuels,” which is an effort to better understand the role that embers play in wildfire spread. Understanding how embers are created, travel, and start new fires will lead to more fire-resistant building construction, better land management policies, and enhanced firefighting techniques.

Another Foundation project, titled the “e-Murray” project, uses the Fort McMurray Fire as a backdrop to study the complexities of wildfire evacuations. The project hopes to produce specifications for open-source simulation tools, which will one day lead to a system that can forecast the progress of a wildfire based on many real-time factors, and in turn the effectiveness of various pedestrian and traffic responses. On the firefighting side, a project called “Advanced Fire Blocking Materials for Enhanced Performance in Wildland Fire Shelters” seeks to optimize the fire shelters wildland firefighters use when trapped in a wildfire to make these vital life-saving shelters as lightweight and rugged as possible.

There are many aspects of the WUI that are different from other fire protection applications, and much more will need to be done to increase our understanding of this problem if we are to succeed. For instance, controlling a fuel load that literally grows on its own and requires active management practices is not a problem we face in the urban environment. How a wildfire moves and spreads is subject to a daunting number of variables and still is far from being modeled with precise accuracy. We obviously have a long road and much effort ahead of us, but we will tackle it with the same commitment shown on the urban side more than a century ago.

CASEY GRANT is executive director of the Fire Protection Research Foundation.