Wildfire, Wildlands, and the Wildland-urban Interface Reflect Firefighting’s Newest, Biggest Challenge

Wildfire, Wildlands, and the Wildland-urban Interface Reflect Firefighting’s Newest, Biggest Challenge

Wildfires are in the news more than ever, and their impact on communities, the environment, and fire services professionals has never been more apparent. With more houses popping up on the border between wildland and civilization, here are the basics every fire team, regardless of current function, should know.

Roving helicopters dropping carrots and sweet potatoes by the ton for fire-stranded wildlife. Travelers pausing mid-terminal to offer spontaneous applause to visiting US firefighters as they pack their gear through Sydney International Airport. In a time where one can set a watch to the poor human behavior and rampant political squabbling that follow mass-scale weather events, images such as these provide needed balance to a grim story: a tragically historic Australian wildfire in which, as of January 24, at least 33 people and billions of animals had lost their lives. It’s a crisis that shows few, if any, signs of ending soon.

Australia is far from the only nation to face the increasingly fiery face of nature’s wrath in recent years. Unlike the relatively isolated paths of earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes, any one of which can still wreak massive destruction, rising temperatures and countless other factors combine to create an environment in which it almost feels as though wildfires can erupt anywhere, any time. In the US, search volumes and trends reflect growing public consciousness of terms like “fire season” and “wildfire season,” due in part to the growing incidence of wildfires domestically and abroad. Elsewhere in the northern hemisphere, “unprecedented” out-of-season wildfires are a serious concern as far away as the Arctic, where heat spikes above the global average have spot-dried countless acres of forestland into little more than kindling, according to the World Meteorological Association (WMA).

Naturally, greater risk of wildfire means greater risk of disruption or outright loss to residents, landowners, and the environment alike. The issue is endlessly more complex for both fire service professionals and the public service administrators who decide where and how they should function. Although budget cuts threaten their existence and public opinion has shifted to favor a model in which firefighters are hybridized into two- or three-in-one emergency response teams, these recurring wildfires reflect a world in which focused, plentiful fire services are perhaps more needed than ever. They have also expanded the idea of a firegrounds, once reserved for structural blazes in wide swaths of the country, but which has now become deadlier, more open-faced, and more widespread than ever, even in areas one would not have considered prone to such fires a decade ago.

For homebuying, health-conscious public, fire remains a multidimensional risk

The blaze itself is but one of many problems ultimately posed to those caught in its path. Most fires large enough to warrant fire department response carry causes and effects so complex it would be impossible to fully list either, a problem that extends to both the civilian and professional sides of the issue.

At a high level, it would be fair to call many such issues cyclical. Consider the WMA piece, linked above, which describes how Arctic wildfires beyond the expected time and range become both symptom and cause. Pollution — namely, the long lives and high travel capacity of various flammable microparticles — is a factor, along with other issues such as global warming and the resultant spiking temperatures. These create or contribute to fires in the biodiverse Arctic region, which features ample forest and grassland to catch ablaze. The smoke that rises from the fire contributes to the greenhouse effect, thus increasing temperatures, thus making more fire likely. The region, more susceptible to environmental change than other areas, suffers even more intense heat and greater risk of fires in turn.

The human costs associated with such blazes are similarly complex. Just as a person caught in a house fire may suffer serious injury or death due to smoke inhalation, smoke-related injury and illness have high potential to become a public health crisis in fire-prone corners of the globe. Then there are the indirect factors: The insurance industry in California has faced public backlash and regulatory pressure due to shrinking coverage areas and spiking rates, both directly related to increased wildfire risk. Rural California’s real estate market has paid a heavy toll in recent years, with the usual influx of retirees, second-homers, and other buyers understandably hesitant to invest in properties that may ultimately fall in the path of a fire, and just as loath to pay premiums of up to $10,000 a year for secondary, “bare-bones […] last resort” coverage from “unregulated ‘surplus’ [insurance] carriers,” per The Sacramento Bee.

Though extreme in its fire risk and resultant housing situation(s), the Bee’s reporting reflects a California that is, in many ways, a perfect microcosm of issues that are likely to affect much of the world in the future: a state in which both rural homesteads and trendy, multimillion-dollar designer homes sit unused as insurers and buyers alike question the continued viability and livability of the real estate. If secondary to the real suffering of injury and lives lost, it is at least a sign of the many, many ways fire’s tendrils can reach beyond the flame.

How does fighting wildfires differ from other forms of firefighting?

It is easy to list the surface-level differences between a wildfire and a structural (or even forest) fire, but even those familiar with fire services may be surprised at how different the work required to contain or suppress the two may be.

Some challenges come down to inherent differences between inhabited and wild firegrounds. Where structures tend to burn quickly and the gaps between properties often allow fire personnel at least some measure of control over the continued spread, a wildfire features no such limitations and can grow to include almost all material in its path, organic or otherwise. Reports of entire neighborhoods being consumed generally come from areas in which homes sit in the path of a raging wildfire. On the other hand, seemingly paradoxical “wildland” fires in which flames might burn an entire neighborhood’s homes but leave trees nearly untouched are increasingly common, thanks largely to the flammable synthetics with which modern homes are built and the factors that cause them to burn faster than organic material. For instance, a “firebrand” ember that would be extinguished on a relatively moist tree leaf can hit a roofing shingle, spread, smolder, and create a blaze that consumes a house to the foundation; this creates more embers, which spread to neighboring homes the same way.

Spreading outdoor fires have essentially endless fuel and can occur in a variety of climate conditions, ranging from the bone dry to the crushingly humid. Heat — air temperatures of nearly 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit [PDF link], in extreme cases — is a natural byproduct of such rampant spread, creating an environment in which temperatures can prove fatal without direct exposure to flames or smoke. “Bursts” created by atmospheric factors can push the flames forward at speeds of 100 mph. Hidden dangers in the hectic scene include so-called “widowmakers,” trees and branches that are weakened by flames and fall with little noise or other warning. These sudden treefalls, along with fleeing wild animals, can create chaos even in burns that seem controlled.

These challenges and numerous others help shape a branch of firefighting that is wholly different from battling structural blazes. While all fires pose inherent dangers, the particulars of wildland firefighting operations are often less familiar to the public than the municipal firefighting they may have seen or read about in their communities. Differences between the fields often leave fire professionals in urban areas with questions about the wildland firefighting side of the job, and vice versa. Frequently, these questions focus on personal protective equipment (which tends to be lighter and cooler, given the task’s unique commands) and conditioning requirements (stricter, since the job tends to require more taxing physical work, at higher temperature, for longer exposure periods). There are also unexpected risks, as unprepared firefighters trained in structural encounters but not wildfires tend to suffer higher mortality rates on the job, per one Firehouse article.

Conclusion: Cross-training needed for urban firefighters

Further compounding the need for wildland firefighting operations is the expansion of the “wildland-urban interface” (WUI), a rapidly expanding land category wherein “homes are built near or among lands prone to wildland fire,” per one wildland firefighting information resource. Because any fire response has the chance of involving two highly independent job types, and because training in one area does not automatically qualify a firefighter to perform in another, the WUI has proven a particular challenge for agencies and municipalities. According to the same resource, each unique combination of wildland and habitation requires a different outlook and approach: anchor points, organizational structure, chemicals/tactics deployed, and other specifics can vary widely from interface to interface.

Training, likewise, is situationally dependent, with a few universal musts for agencies tasked with managing a WUI:

  • Conditioning: Per industry resource WildfireX, “above-average endurance and superior conditioning” are bare-minimum necessities for wildland firefighters in the field; the famous “pack test” requires field personnel to hike three miles carrying a 45-pound pack in 45 minutes, for instance.
  • Local Strategy: Agencies concerned about their status on the WUI will undoubtedly have identified key anchor points and other universal land and property features. Clear contingency plans and strategy should be built using these points and disseminated among all firefighters serving the area, whether they are officially tasked with structural or wildland firefighting work.
  • Equipment: Because formerly “urban” firefighters are more often asked to help contain wildfires and wildland blazes, the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) suggests all stations with a WUI contingent “practice utilization of non-traditional firefighting resources,” including bulldozers, tree fallers, and “small all-wheel-drive fire apparatuses.”

For more information on specific training requirements, including points on fire safety in WUI communities, agencies are strongly encouraged to visit the US Fire Administration’s WUI Toolkit: https://www.usfa.fema.gov/wui/

Beyond this, the WUI remains both highly situational and an area new enough to firefighting to warrant massive future study. There are also core differences in the way various countries approach wildland firefighting, including prescribed fire and other methods. It is difficult to call situations like those in Australia anything but abject tragedies; however, they do, at the minimum, afford agencies the world over a chance to watch, learn, and revise for the next fire. With global temperatures rising and more homes being built on the border between wildland and civilization, this information may help make coming fire seasons less deadly and destructive than those in years past.

Posted on Jan 28, 2020