Open-space islands: Invisible threat to fire chiefs

Every city has them and under the right conditions they are tinderboxes; here's how to prep for urban green spaces

David Driscoll will be moderating a panel discussion at International Association of Fire Chief's Wildland-Urban Interface conference on tactical operations for open space islands located in the wildland-urban interface on March 7. If you're interested in attending, please visit here.

Every fire chief is responsible for preparing for special threats to their community. Industrial complexes, hazmat transport routes and extreme weather events are just a few of those threats.

Open-space islands are another threat. However, it's often an invisible one as nearly all communities have them and many in the fire service never give them a second thought.

Open-space islands are those tracts of undeveloped or set aside green spaces that dot nearly all urban and suburban landscapes. They can be nature preserves or simply the wooded areas along waterways.

Given the right humidity and wind conditions, a docile 5-acre plot of forest preserve can burn up millions of dollars in surrounding homes before the first engine even arrives, says David Driscoll.

Driscoll is a retired CalFire fire chief and a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs' wildland fire policy committee.

He's crisscrossed the country for the past five years pointing out and educating fire departments on the threat of open-space islands. He's pitched the cause to several municipal planning groups like the American Planning Association.

And, he'll be moderating a panel discussion on that topic with San Diego Battalion Chiefs David Gerbeth and Daniel Froelich at next month's IAFC Wildland-Urban Interface conference in Reno, Nevada. You can get more information about the conference and how to attend here.

Scope of the threat
"Most parts of the country have their periods of low humidity, low moisture, high winds," Chief Driscoll said. "Nobody ever thinks of Pebble Beach, Calif. as a wildfire area. But on May 31, 1987, they had everything line up and a wildfire took out 160 acres and 31 homes causing $18 million in damage."

He admits that it is not the biggest threat facing fire chiefs. 

"A fire chief may go his entire career and never see an open-space island fire," he says. "But that doesn't mean the potential is not there. You can go your whole career and never see a major train wreck."

The numbers, however, do point to a threat worth paying attention to. Working off NFPA's count of outdoor and grass fires — as well as vehicle fires since they are often outside and ignition sources — he estimates there are 1.6 million such fires each year in the United States. For perspective, there are about 16,000 hazmat incidents per year.

And Driscoll says the trend for this threat is growing.

"I see the threat increasing as society decides more and more to have open space," he says. "Society is spending billions of dollars on these open spaces to protect animals and plants. Upstate New York has done a tremendous job of preserving watersheds as a place where they can harvest their water. They've got a 300,000-acre tract with homes around it.

"And when you create one of these open spaces it makes the surrounding homes valuable. You've got these tinderboxes in the middle of communities."

Mitigation efforts
Like any threat, recognizing it is step one. Step two is planning for the worst-case scenario.

Where these open-space islands already exist, there's little fire chief's can do to change them. Therefore, they must look for response and mitigation options, Driscoll says. This means examining the equipment and training of both the chief's department and that of those providing mutual and auto aid.

"Every community is going to have their own uniqueness that they will need to be able to address," he says. "If you are on a major metro department, most of those guys are probably only going to have structural protective gear."

Look at acquiring wildland pants, shirts and helmets as well as a Type III four-wheel-drive engine, he says. And a community's dangerous winds often come from a different direction than its prevailing winds; "give some thought to it."

Of course for those green spaces still in the planning phase, it is critical for the chief to be involved early. That means getting involved with municipal planning boards in the same way they would if an industrial plant or railway was coming to the district.

"At that point, the fire chief should be involved and asking if they can get access to it," Driscoll says. "Can we get a gate? Can we get a road around the perimeter, which increases the set back for homes. Sometimes it only takes 50 to 100 feet of separation from the natural vegetation to the house."

Here to stay
Making the case for fire prevention and protection in the planning phase can be a hard sell as most don't see it as a threat, he says. However, there was one study that showed prevention costs were as much as 30 times cheaper than suppression costs.

And help can come from existing defensible green spaces like parks and golf courses, as those tend to be open and irrigated.

"But they can have significant tracts of native vegetation," Driscoll says. "Maybe the golf course owns 100 acres and have only used 75, so that's 25 acres of open space."

Ultimately, it comes down to assessing the level of threat and capability of response. And like other emergency responses, that has to take place prior to an incident.

"As a community is developing one of these, [chiefs] need to think about the same things we think of in the structural arena like access, set back and management," he said. "The people who established it won't be there in 30 years, but the fire department will still be there and the homes around it will still be there."

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