Wildland-urban interface fires: Managing the minefield of risk

WUI fires are notorious for clouding situational awareness and pulling responders into a whirlpool of reaction

By Edward A. Wright

Recurring wildland-urban interface (WUI) fire tragedies such as the 2011 firestorm in America's Southeast exhibit a harsh reality: they remain some of the most dynamic, dangerous and costly fires in the world.

The WUI fire environment blasts responders with a minefield of risk. Structural firefighters are challenged by the myriad variables of wildfire. Wildland firefighters face the complexities of structure fires.

For both, it's a netherworld of extreme fire behavior, eclectic fuel loading, unrealistic public expectation, high media interest and a fluid mix of multi-agency responders of varying abilities. Situational awareness is obscured and span of control is rapidly exceeded in a tsunami of competing demands.

Because of these dynamic challenges and imposing risks, interface fires require disciplined management and reasoned response.

Not in my backyard?
In the United States, many responders equate WUI events to annual Santa Anna foehn winds fanning firestorms in upscale canyon neighborhoods of southern California. While many of this nation's most devastating WUI fires are in California, nearly every fire agency in the United States has some type of interface fire risk.

Texas has been particularly hard hit in 2011. An ongoing drought has left heavy fuel loads tinder dry. By mid-May, the Texas Forest Service responded to 1,096 fire incidents involving more than 1.8 million acres. Property damage includes the loss of nearly 600 structures.

As is most often the case, these staggering property losses are not without a human toll. A firefighter was killed and five others were injured while battling a wildfire west of Fort Worth. Another firefighter died and three others were injured on the Crawford Ranch Fire.

The massive scale of these incidents required TFS to seek assistance from agencies across the United States. Responders included 33 states, federal resources, local fire departments, numerous state agencies, Regional Incident Management Teams, and departments within the Texas Intrastate Fire Mutual Aid System.

Interface fires are not just problematic in North America. They challenge response agencies around the world. The 2009 "Black Saturday" fires in Australia saw more than 170 people living on the urban fringe perish, hundreds seriously burned and more than 2,000 houses consumed. Victoria's response resources were quickly overwhelmed.

Planning for safety and success
WUI fires are notorious for clouding situational awareness and pulling responders into a whirlpool of reaction. It's much like the EMT who flunks his first practical exam by focusing on a compound Tib/Fib fracture then "losing" the patient to a ruptured spleen.

All WUI fire suppression must focus on a responder's primary mission: Life safety of fellow responders, then impacted civilians. Property and resource protection are secondary. It's easy to invert these priorities when public, political and media pressures mount.

Incident management and tactical response must include ongoing identification of WUI "Watch Out" situations and a cognitive effort to maintain situational awareness.

Strategies and tactics are formulated using a combination of factors:

1. Number, type and experience level of response personnel and apparatus

2. Evacuations, traffic and other public considerations

3. Fuel type, weather conditions and terrain features that (are or will contribute to problem or extreme fire behavior

4. Size and availability of safety zones

5. Number of structures, type of construction, defensible space, power lines, nearby vegetation, terrain challenges, vehicle access and available water supply

6. Current and expected fire behavior -- how much time crews have to triage and prepare structures

Synthesizing these factors into workable response and suppression plans is a complex balancing act.

"WUI fire suppression is really risk management. A firefighter losing his life to save a pet from a burning building or a tree falling on a responder when he shouldn't even be there…these are the things that should change our way of thinking and entire direction," says Rowdy Muir, National Type I Interagency Incident commander.

Managing WUI risk: Training and resource materials
In January 2010, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) published a major revision of the seminal Incident Response Pocket Guide (PMS 461, NFES 1077, January 2010). The handbook's expanded section on WUI fires reflects decades of input from both state and federal agencies.

Specifically, the guidelines address structural triage and demonstrate an increased emphasis on life safety. The IRPG is only a tactical field guide, however. More in-depth resource material is available in Chapter Six of the Fireline Handbook (PMS 410-1, NFES 0065).

Additionally, the NWCG S-215 Fire Operations in the Wildland Urban Interface course is an invaluable training tool. IRPGs, Fireline Handbooks and S-215 training material are available from U.S. Bureau of Land Management—Great Basin Fire Cache in Boise, Idaho.

The International Association of Fire Chiefs released a new WUI risk management program titled Ready, Set, Go! (RSG). RSG has its origins in the Leave Early, or Stay and Defend homeowner policies under evaluation by the Victorian Wildfires Royal Commission in Australia.

RSG stresses personal responsibility on the part of homeowners while focusing on prevention, preparation and evacuation. RSG is available at www.wildlandfirersg.org.

In more than 30 years of responding to structural and wildland fires, this responder has experienced some of the most challenging professional lessons on the WUI fireground. It's these lessons learned and those of countless others that must guide our strategic and tactical WUI planning and response. 

About the author

Lt. Edward A. Wright, of the Poulsbo, Wash., Fire Department, is senior officer and lead ICS and NIMS instructor for Kitsap Wildland Team and Bates College in Tacoma, Wash. A responder for more than 30 years, he has served with both municipal fire departments and U.S. federal land management agencies. Lt. Wright holds bachelors degrees in public relations and journalism and currently responds as Task Force Leader, Firing Boss and Incident Commander IV. He is also a specialist in wildland and interface response apparatus and compressed air foam systems. Lt. Wright is also the managing director of Africa Public Safety Trust. 

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