Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on March 1, 2018.


A new report offers “Pop-up Innovations” for fighting fires in the wildland/urban interface


In 2017, following a string of deadly and devastating wildfires the year before—including a Canadian fire that torched over 1.4 million acres of land near Fort McMurray, Alberta, and one that claimed over a dozen lives near Gatlinburg, Tennessee—the U.S. Department of Homeland Security asked NFPA and Northeastern University’s Global Resilience Institute to write a report on the North American wildfire problem. The result, “Wildfire: A Changing Landscape,” a 46-page document released in December, reinforces the wildfire education and prevention messaging NFPA has touted for years, such as the importance of community risk reduction programs to mitigate the wildfire risk in the wildland/urban interface (WUI).

Also in the report are six ideas, some of which are already being implemented, to address the challenges associated with WUI blazes in new ways. The ideas, referred to in the report as “pop-up innovations,” were presented at a June 2017 workshop hosted by NFPA, and range from technological (in the form of a smartphone app and data mapping) to grassroots (such as encouraging volunteerism in wildfire prevention). They come from experts whose backgrounds range from the fire service to the insurance industry to higher education.

Here are summaries of three of the innovations:

Innovation: An app to close the five-foot gap

Innovator: Rob Galbraith, director of property underwriting at USAA Insurance

When it comes to wildfire home ignition, it’s the five feet of space between a structure and anything else, like vegetation or piles of trash, that matters most, according to Galbraith. “If no ignition occurs in the last five feet, no ignition occurs in the home,” he says.

To that end, USAA has developed Fireshield/WDS, a mobile application that allows homeowners to take photographs of these five-foot spaces around their homes and send them to a trained wildfire expert, possibly a Firewise USA™ assessor, who can then determine if there’s a threat. The system also allows for data collection on trends in certain areas and for rewarding homeowners who display “pro-active risk management,” Galbraith says.

Innovation: Digital mapping for safer, more connected wildland firefighters

Innovator: Rebekah Fox, assistant professor of communications at Texas State University

During the nation’s largest wildfires, firefighters are deployed from different communities, and even different states and countries. They’re plopped into areas they likely aren’t familiar with and need to learn quickly, all while focusing on suppressing the blaze. Different vegetation might mean different cutting methods when clearing brush. It could also mean unknown poisonous plants.

“We need to find ways to train deploying firefighters more effectively,” Fox says. “One way to do this would be to create a digital map of the deployment area with short, embedded videos that focus on regional specific firefighting tactics and safety information. [It] could be made available to deploying firefighters via mobile applications and used while in transit.”

Innovation: A wildfire checklist for city planners and officials

Innovator: Leon Konz, Firewise state liaison, Tennessee Division of Forestry

“Even the most committed city officials in wildfire vulnerable communities are often unaware of all the elements that need addressing to prevent or minimize losses during rare, catastrophic wildfires,” Konz says.

That’s why he’s created a checklist for officials to refer to. The list asks questions like: What are the common wildfire ignition sources within the city? Is there an evacuation plan in place? Have employees in all city departments been trained on wildfire safety? “The checklist…could be disseminated via conferences, association newsletters, incorporated into community planners’ curricula, etc.,” Konz says.

Read the full report and check out the other three innovations online.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images