Wildfires are an important and necessary occurrence in many natural areas of the United States, but they also present a risk to homes constructed in, or next to, such areas. All homes are not equally at risk for a variety of reasons.
For homeowners, risk is based on nearby land use, vegetation near homes and building design and materials. If you live in a subdivision surrounded by other homes or developments with abundant green lawns and open space, or in the middle of an urban area, then your wildfire risk is likely low and this document may not apply to you. However, if your home is located adjacent to or near undeveloped, shrubby or wooded land, then you could be at a higher risk if a wildfire occurs.
Ignition of a wildfire may come from a lightning strike or, more frequently, one of many possible human sources (most often arson or debris burns). Once a fire has started, four main conditions influence its behavior:
Fuel is the material that feeds a fire, and is a key factor in wildfire behavior. Fuel is classified by volume and by type. Another important element of fuel is its continuity. A house surrounded by brushy growth rather than cleared space allows for greater continuity of fuel and increases the fire’s ability to spread.
Topography influences the movement of air, directing a fire’s course. Slope is a key topographic feature in fire behavior. If the percentage of uphill slope doubles, the rate of spread in a wildfire will likely double. Gulches and canyons can funnel air and act as chimneys, which intensify fire behavior and cause the fire to spread faster. Similarly, saddle-shaped lands on ridge-tops lower resistance to the passage of air and draw fires. Solar heating of drier, south-facing slopes produces upslope drafts that can complicate fire behavior.
Weather is the most variable factor affecting wildfire behavior, with some geographic locations having a favorable overall climate for wildfire activity. High-risk areas that favor fire activity share a hot, dry season in late summer and early fall when high temperatures and low humidity.
Development - Fire has historically been a natural wildland element, but people have been increasingly building homes in such areas and this often creates increased risk. Remote location and natural vegetation contributes to scenic beauty, but it may also provides a ready trail of fuel leading a fire directly to the combustible fuels of the home itself.
Wildfire Vulnerability Assessment Questions
To assess your vulnerability to the threat of a Wildfire to your family and property, perform an assessment to determine if you have knowledge of, are prepared and/or have a plan by answering the following questions:
General All-Hazard Questions:
- Have you determined the disaster risks in your locale and the hazards that accompany them?
- Do you know the emergency warning signals and alert notifications used in your community?
- Have you instructed family members how to shut off water, gas and electricity to your house?
- Have you made the necessary property preparations to reduce the damage from the hazard?
- Do you have a backup generator in case of a prolonged power failure?
- Have you purchased insurance (property, health, life, and/or hazard type)?
- Have you made the necessary financial arrangements in case of a sudden evacuation and power outage that shuts down local ATMs and banks?
- have you organized important documents and records and stored them in a portable lock box or safe-deposit box?
- Have you performed a home inventory video taping the contents stored them in a portable lock box or safe-deposit box?
- Does your family have an established Emergency Communication Plan and evacuation plan in place and asked an out-of-state person to serve as the “family contact”?
- Have you assembled a shelter-in-place Emergency Supplies Kit in case you have to shelter at home and you are without power?
- Have you assembled a mobile Emergency Supplies Kit that can serve as a “grab and go” bag?
- Are you or someone in your family trained in first aid and CPR?
- Have you made they necessary preparations and arrangements for pets, seniors, and the disabled?
- Have you familiarized yourself with the emergency plans of your family member’s employment building, school, day care center, or nursing home?
Hazard Specific Questions:
- Do you know your local community’s fire laws?
- Have you taken steps to reduce potential exposure to flames and radiant heat by creating a 30 to 100-foot safety zone around your home?
- Have you protected your home from ignition by using construction materials and landscaping that are either fire-resistant or non-combustible?
- Do you have available, when evacuating, a sturdy shoes or boots, non-flammable clothing, a hat and gloves?
Concerned about brush, grass or forest fires where you live? Use the Firewise.org website. Firewise is a program developed within the National Wildland/Urban Interface Fire Protection Program, and it is the primary federal program addressing interface fire. Firewise offers online wildfire protection information and checklists, as well as listings of other publications, videos, and conferences. The interactive home page allows users to ask fire protection experts questions, and to register for new information as it becomes available.
InciWeb is an Internet based interagency incident information system which offers an easy way for Public Information Officers (PIOs) and other communications team members and delivers fire news from specific incidents throughout the entire country. It is provided by the United States Forest Service and was started in 2004.
InciWeb was originally developed to provide the most current information for wildland fire emergencies, but can be also used for other emergency incidents (natural disasters, such as earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, etc.). It also provides a convenient way for both internal and external audiences to find updated, consistently formatted information about incidents happening all across the country in one place.
The Active Fire Mapping Program is an operational, satellite-based fire detection and monitoring program managed by the USDA Forest Service Remote Sensing Applications Center (RSAC) located in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Active Fire Mapping program provides near real-time detection and characterization of wildland fire conditions in a geospatial context for the continental United States, Alaska, Hawaii and Canada. Detectable fire activity across all administrative ownerships in the United States and Canada are mapped and characterized by the program.
As a homeowner, you need to understand that in critical fire situations there may not be enough firefighting resources to protect all homes. By taking personal responsibility for reducing hazards around your home, you may substantially increase the likelihood that your home will survive a serious fire. It is important to make those changes before a fire starts! Equally important will be regular maintenance to maintain your firewise home and landscape.
The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho, is the physical facility that is home to the National Interagency Coordination Center (NICC), and the National Multi-Agency Coordination group (NMAC or MAC).
The center’s mission is the complex interagency co-ordination of wildland firefighting resources in the United States. Although NIFC was founded to manage firefighting resources throughout the western states, the center is now designated as an “all-risk” co-ordination center and thus provides support in response to other emergencies such as floods, hurricanes and earthquakes for the entire United States. It helps to establish the National preparedness level, to help establish priorities and allocate some resources.
- USDA – Is Your Home at Risk from Wildfire?: http://www.srs.fs.usda.gov/compass/2013/05/30/is-your-home-at-risk-from-wildfire/
- Image Source: http://training.fema.gov/EMIWeb/IS/IS394A/04fire-0306.pdf p.4-1 [Accessed July 27, 2013]
- Jackson County, OR – Wildfire Mitigation Plan – Section 7: http://www.co.jackson.or.us/Files/Section%2007.pdf
- Firewise.org – Website – http://www.firewise.org/information/who-is-this-for/homeowners.aspx
Firewise.org Videos for the General Public – http://www.firewise.org/information/video/for-the-general-public.aspx
- Image Source: http://www.firewise.org/information/who-is-this-for/homeowners.aspx [Accessed July 27, 2013]
- InciWeb – Website – http://www.inciweb.org/
- Image Source: http://www.inciweb.org/incident/3552/ [Accessed July 27, 2013]
- Active Fire Mapping Program – http://activefiremaps.fs.fed.us/
- Image Source: http://activefiremaps.fs.fed.us/ [Accessed July 27, 2013]
- The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) – http://www.nifc.gov/
- Image Source: http://www.nifc.gov/ [Accessed July 27, 2013]