Feds developing scale for wildfires
Embers are shot at a structure during a test at the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety test facility in Richburg, S.C. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is developing the Wildland Urban Interface Hazard Scale to get a measurement of the intensity of a wildfire similar to the way officials use scales to measure hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes. AP PHOTO
DENVER — Federal researchers have been working on a system to measure and predict the destructiveness of wildfires — similar to the way officials use the magnitude scale for earthquakes and other tools to rate and evaluate tornadoes and hurricanes.
The scale would allow city planners to assign better building codes for the millions of people who live in fire-prone areas in the West and would also measure how those homes could contribute to the spread of a fire.
The proposed scale would range from E1 to E4 — with E4 being a location’s highest exposure to fire, be it from grasslands to a forest in a remote mountain canyon. Building codes and buffer zones between homes and forest could then be set accordingly.
Nelson Bryner, research engineer for the institute’s fire research division, envisions the day when TV stations report that a wildfire is burning in an E4 community. But he said the scale is primarily meant to form the technical foundation for tougher building codes to be developed by states, cities and communities for high-risk areas.
“If you’re going to build there, then you need to use the following designs,” said Bryner, who introduced the scale at a recent International Association of Fire Fighters conference in Denver.
Insurers also are eager for results. Payouts after western wildfires have grown exponentially. In the 1970s, wildfires destroyed about 400 homes nationwide. Since 2000, wildfires have destroyed about 3,000 homes per year, according to NIST.
In Colorado alone, wildfires accounted for more than $858 million in insurance claims in 2012 and 2013, according to the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. More than 1,100 homes have been destroyed in 2012 and 2013.
Alex Maranghides, manager of NIST’s Large Fire Laboratory, and William “Ruddy” Mell, a combustion engineer for the U.S. Forest Service, came up with the idea, which would be applied to forest, grasslands and other wildland where homes have been built or are being constructed — a vast area known as the Wildland Urban Interface.
Researchers are analyzing building materials, grasses, trees, shrubs, topography, weather patterns and especially the behavior of wind-driven embers as ignition fuel. Embers sailing up to a half-mile ahead of a fire destroy more than 50 percent of homes during wildfires, according to insurance and fire experts. But they have not been closely studied.
NIST has already developed a mobile app and is developing other computer programs that will allow fire marshals and building inspectors to rate an area before a fire starts. Researchers caution it will be several years before that happens.