Playing with Fire
From Australia to the Amazon, Teams Must Extinguish the Risks of a Hotter, Drier Future
BY TEGAN JONES | PORTRAITS BY CRAIG SILLITOE
Peter Grant, Country Fire Authority, Melbourne, Australia
With the coastline of an entire continent burning, a scorched-earth urgency had teams across Australia racing to control the damage. Between September 2019 and January 2020, bush-fires ravaged roughly 27 million acres (11 million hectares) of wilderness from Queensland south to Victoria, destroying an estimated 2,500 homes and killing at least 30 people. Under normal conditions, responders would expect fires to end in the north before they picked up in the south, but drier conditions and longer droughts have extended fire seasons across the continent. And it’s stretching resources thin.
“Normally we’d have a fire impacting a more built-up area last one to two weeks,” says Peter Grant, volunteer incident controller and operations officer, Country Fire Authority, Melbourne, Australia. “These fires are lasting weeks and weeks and weeks. We’re wearing our volunteers out. We’re wearing our staff out.”
Teams around the world are feeling the heat. In August 2019, at least 70,000 wildfires blazed through the Brazilian Amazon—a jump of more than 80 percent over the 2018 fire season. Deforestation and human activity, such as farming and ranching, were the main causes of last year’s fires, which have put an entire ecosystem and countless endangered species at risk.
The U.S. state of California, in contrast, saw fewer fires last year: 259,823 acres (105,146 hectares) burned in 2019, compared with 1.67 million acres (675,825 hectares) in 2018, and 1.25 million acres (505,857 hectares) in 2017. The drop reflects the power of securing stakeholder buy-in for strategic urban planning and land management projects.
Fire-prone communities are taking these three steps to minimize the threats posed by future wildfires—and ensure they have a path to safety.
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE GOLDEN HOUR RESTORATION INSTITUTE
Volunteers from the Golden Hour Restoration Institute, Berkeley, California, USA
1 START AT THE SOURCE
Many ecosystems and species require regular wildfires to survive. But as global populations grow—and humans encroach farther into wild spaces—natural fire boundaries are being eroded.
“It’s well established scientifically that a lot of these areas where we’re putting housing, there’s a regular fire regime,” says Lech Naumovich, executive director, Golden Hour Restoration Institute, Berkeley, California, USA. The organization works with public agencies, nonprofits and local governments to identify vegetation changes that can reduce and control wildfires. “For us to somehow believe that we are going to stop that fire regime with fire protection as it stands right now is a bit of a myth.”
The solution is complicated. Communities need to take a closer look at everything from how vegetation is managed to what materials are used to build new structures in order to reduce the risk of fanning the flames. And making big changes can come with a big cost.
“The question is, how much money are you willing to spend per acre for what amount of safety?” Mr. Naumovich says.
While it’s impossible to put a price on lives saved, there is a clear, bottom-line benefit to making big-picture improvements. A 2018 report from the National Institute of Building Sciences found that exceeding current building codes and incorporating fire prevention best practices saves, on average, US$4 for every US$1 spent.
But swapping out roofing materials and timber for less flammable alternatives can only go so far. Communities and project teams also need to closely examine where people are allowed to build—and how dense wildland populations are allowed to become.
“I think a lot of people just see that house in the woods and say, ‘Oh, this is perfect,’” Mr. Naumovich says. “Nobody will talk to them about fire risk at all. We have a lot of room there to make sure people are making thoughtful decisions about where they live.”
2017’s Thomas Fire near Santa Barbara, California, USA
2 RETHINK AND REBUILD
Building communities that are more fire resilient starts with something rather mundane: revisiting municipal codes. While most local governments regulate community development using a series of building, fire and infrastructure codes, communities in fire-prone areas should consider a more integrated approach, says Karl Fippinger, PMP, vice president, government relations, fire and disaster mitigation, International Code Council (ICC), Washington, D.C., USA.
Part of Mr. Fippinger’s role at ICC is focused on encouraging the adoption of the Wildland-Urban Interface Code, a cross-disciplinary development model that makes it harder for fire to spread—and easier for communities to escape from the flames. briefing decision makers to help them understand what changes adopting a new code would entail and who would be accountable for enacting and enforcing different pieces of the code,” he says.
These changes, such as ensuring access to adequate water supplies for fighting wildfires, span agencies and departments. Mr. Fippinger suggests having a senior staff member, such as a commissioner of public safety, own the adoption and implementation of the new code. These central players often have the power to make things happen, though they still need help. That’s why the ICC team also shares lessons learned from past implementations.
“We’ll provide ordinance review and plan review of pieces of their program,” Mr. Fippinger says. “But we also connect them with other organizations and groups that can help move them forward, so they can reach out and connect with peers and say, ‘Hey, how did you do this in your jurisdiction?’”
3 FIGHT AND FLIGHT
Once the fire season has started, early detection and speedy evacuation are the best ways to save lives in at-risk communities.
“We’re seeing a lot of these wildfires start really small and get going fairly quickly,” Mr. Naumovich says. “But usually there’s a bit of a window there. You have an ability to evacuate people and reduce, at least, loss of life.”
During Australia’s record-setting fire season, the lone roads in and out of remote communities commonly were blocked by fallen trees and flames. The Royal Australian Navy and Victoria Police boats had to rescue residents stranded on beaches, and reinforcements had to be brought in and out by military aircraft and barges.
“In my personal experience, this is not something we’ve had to do to the same extent in the past,” Mr. Grant says. “Everybody sort of said, ‘Okay, well, it is what it is.’ But the biggest learning for me was how to adapt to an area that really was cut off from the rest of the world.”
In such isolation, he and other leaders had to rethink deployment schedules for volunteer forces. Rather than turning teams over every three days, the Country Fire Authority often had to keep them for four or five days, which could be a big disruption for people taking time away from their families. Under these conditions, the key to making sure volunteer resources are being used efficiently is better management training, Mr. Grant says.
“The firefighter on the ground is obviously highly skilled and very essential. The person managing 100 of those is a more specialist resource,” he says. “We’ve got to train and develop that middle management layer.”
Those leaders, whether they’re volunteers or staff members, need a base-level understanding of the ecology of the area, Mr. Naumovich adds. This requires on-the-ground training, such as education into a site’s fire history, which can make a big difference, he says.
“That cross-disciplinary work is really valuable if one has the bandwidth to learn it. It keeps firefighters safer on the ground.” PM