Measuring threats

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that federal researchers are developing a mechanism for measuring and predicting the danger of wildfires. It would be akin to the Richter scale used to describe earthquakes or the numbering systems assigned to tornados or hurricanes.

That could transform the way fire is handled. The change would come not in the way wildfire is fought, but in lessening the threat through more careful zoning, better building codes and more targeted insurance rates.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology is working on a rating system that would rank specific locations on a scale from E1 to E4, with the higher numbers indicating greater risk. Called the Wildland Urban Interface Hazard Scale, the measuring system would let residents know the probable intensity of a wildfire near them.

The scale may someday be used as a warning system, but it is intended to establish a technical and uniform basis for tougher building codes local governments can apply to higher risk areas. As an engineer with the institute told the AP, it would mean that, “If you’re going to build there, then you need to use the following designs.”

The idea for such a scale came from a manager of NIST’s Large Fire Laboratory, and a combustions engineer with the U.S. Forest Service. The basis for the scale will be ongoing research into wildfire and how it behaves with different fuels and in different topography and weather. The researchers say current models for predicting fire behavior are based on research that dates to the 1960s and looks only to the kinds of fuel involved.

Moreover, they point to the fact that most building codes have been written with exposure to direct flame in mind. More recent research, and real-world experience of firefighters, shows wildfires more often spread through ember showers. Building materials, setbacks and cleared space deemed adequate under the assumption of direct flame have proven not to be when subjected to ember showers. Embers can slip between otherwise fireproof roof tiles or fire-resistant siding.

The AP says insurance and fire experts blame embers for the destruction of more than half the homes lost to wildfires. And from an insurance company’s point of view, that is a big deal.

NIST says that nationwide since 2000, wildfires have taken an average of 3,000 homes per year. That is up from about 400 that burned each year in the 1970s. Some of that undoubtably reflects the fact that so many more homes have been built in and around fire-prone areas. But some is almost certainly the result of a changing climate and worsening fire seasons.

In dollar terms, the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association says wildfires destroyed more than 1,100 Colorado homes in 2012 and 2013. For insurers, that translates to losses totaling more than $858 million. Add to that the cost to the taxpayers for everything from local firefighters to federal funds for U.S. Forest Service or contract firefighters, aerial tankers and disaster relief. And, of course, there are lives at risk – almost always endangered by attempts to save homes and personal property.

Home and property owners can be expected to object to tougher zoning or building codes designed to ward off wildfire. So, too, will anyone faced with higher insurance premiums after being labeled as living in a more dangerous area.

The answer is for builders and homeowners to do what they must to ensure that they get the low-risk E1 rating. The only alternative is to accept higher costs – in dollars and in lives – for everyone. And that is too much to ask.

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