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WildfiresAs wildfires expand, fire science needs to keep up

By Albert Simeoni

Published 6 November 2017

In the month of October nearly 250,000 acres, more than 8,000 homes and over 40 people fell victim to fast-moving wildfires in Northern California, the deadliest and one of the costliest outbreaks in state history. Now is the time to wrestle with hard questions. Why did communities that were deemed safe suffer major damage? Should they be rebuilt in the same way? Are there better ways to fight extreme fires and limit their impact? How can emergency planners prepare better for scenarios where full evacuation is not possible? Fire conditions are constantly evolving, and basic research coupled with engineering solutions must keep up. Designing more resilient communities and infrastructure and protecting people more effectively are not onetime goals – they are constant. Currently nations are failing to meet the challenge, and impacts on communities are increasing.

In the month of October nearly 250,000 acres, more than 8,000 homes and over 40 people fell victim to fast-moving wildfires in Northern California, the deadliest and one of the costliest outbreaks in state history. Now is the time to wrestle with hard questions. Why did communities that were deemed safe suffer major damage? Should they be rebuilt in the same way? Are there better ways to fight extreme fires and limit their impact? How can emergency planners prepare better for scenarios where full evacuation is not possible?

This is a global challenge. Brazil, Indonesia, many parts of Africa and Canada typically experience larger wildfires (measured by area burned) than the United States on a yearly average. This year Chile and Portugal have also suffered enormous losses. Australia’s Black Saturday fires in 2009 were its worst fire event ever.

Fire is part of ecosystems in much of the world, so societies must learn to live with it. But key issues are still poorly understood. What is the right degree of fire management to decrease the impact of catastrophic fires? What is the most efficient way to protect the wildland-urban interface – the area where houses meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland vegetation? And what is the best way to evacuate?

In my view and that of other researchers, many countries, including the United States, are underfunding research designed to answer these questions.

Moving into harm’s way
Wildfires are increasing and affecting more areas worldwide. One cause is urban sprawl and the dramatic expansion of the wildand-urban interface. In the 1990s this zone increased by almost 11 percent in California, Oregon and Washington, adding over 1 million housing units – mostly in areas of moderate to high fire risk. At the same time, climate change is creating worse and more frequent wildfire conditions.

No one can control the weather, which is likely to become more extreme, but it is critical to do more to understand vulnerabilities that exist at the wildland-urban interface. Research has identified some factors that create these risks, including the ease with which homes ignite and the spread of fire between structures. Developing solutions will require quantifying the risks. It is also important to evaluate how vegetation treatment, structure hardening and better community design can decrease the likelihood of structural ignition and fire spread.