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"Wildfires are among the few natural disasters in which risk levels can rapidly change as the event progresses, and the threat doesn't weaken with distance away from a well-defined epicenter, as in a tornado," says William Mell, the Forest Service researcher who helped design the WUI Fire Hazard Scale. "For example, if your home is nestled deep within a neighborhood away from the leading edge of a fire, you might not be at risk early on. However, the danger to your home dramatically increases if a neighboring house, the surrounding landscape, or a nearby vehicle catches on fire."
The fire hazard scale announced Wednesday is a matrix with three dimensions: fuel sources, type of topography, and weather conditions, particularly winds. Depending on the severity of exposure to fire or embers, the risk to a specific community can be mapped and addressed.
The goal then is to improve building standards, codes, and practices – including those involving trees, shrubs, and other fuel sources growing near homes and other structures, pinpointing where protective measures are most needed. That’s where things can get politically sticky as the various stakeholders – property owners, builders, and regulating agencies – become involved, weighing risks, benefits, costs, and rights.
But, says Alexander Maranghides of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, "If homes and other buildings in the most susceptible zones can be built or retrofitted to high-risk standards, they could potentially serve as a 'frontline defensive wall' for the structures in the lower-risk zones they surround.”
"In effect,” he says, “we may be able to mitigate the entire dynamic of a WUI fire event if the frontline structures don't ignite.”