In May 2016, a wildfire in the Canadian province of Alberta, led to the evacuation of 90,000 residents in the area surrounding Fort McMurray. Thought to be the costliest natural disaster in the country’s history, the fire destroyed more than 1,600 structures and led to the deaths of two people. According to some reports, smoke from the blaze was visible as far away as Iowa; roughly 1,500 miles away.
No definitive cause of the Fort McMurray fire has been determined, but officials believe it was likely due to human error, spurred by drier-than-average conditions and changing climate patterns. Alarmingly, 90 percent of all wildfires are caused by human carelessness such as failing to properly extinguish campfires or haphazardly tossing burning cigarettes. Those caused by natural conditions, however, can be the most devastating as they can spread quickly and grow in intensity long before anyone takes notice and alerts authorities.
In the years 2014 and 2015 wildfires destroyed an average of 6.8 million acres of land each year in the United States, causing catastrophic losses to both natural habitats and real property. In 2015 alone, a record-setting 10,125,149 acres burned in approximately 68,151 reported wildfires. While California is, by and large, the state most affected in terms of both natural habitat and real property damage caused by wildfires–and by default, the costliest for insurers–the densely forested sections of the American and Canadian West are, on par, ground zero for wildfires. Due to the unpredictability of wildfires, the remote and densely forested areas in which they often start, and the lack of control that humans have over natural conditions, technology related to wildfires has largely been reactive; focused less on prevention and more on fighting and containing the fires once they have started. Even the most advanced wildfire technology, such as the FireSat early detection system designed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in order to detect wildfires from space, is often aligned less with prevention and more with locating, fighting, and containing the blaze.
While technology has improved the lives of nearly everyone in the country over the last twenty years, it has done little to stem the increase in wildfire occurrences or the losses that go along with them. With a few exceptions, acreage destroyed by wildfire steadily increased between 1995 and 2014, accounting for 1.5% of all paid insurance claims—roughly $6 billion—and was capped by the aforementioned record-setting destruction of 2015. Though the first two quarters of 2016 show a slight decrease in the number of reported wildfires in the United States, it is not far enough off the pace to indicate a marked decrease in wildfire activity. Because of this, those living in areas prone to wildfires must have a plan in place to ensure the safety of themselves, their families, their pets, and their meaningful possessions in the event of a wildfire-dictated evacuation. Additionally, authorities in areas prone to wildfires should consider, if not already doing so, changes in timber industry regulations and in building codes that will mandate the use of materials less conducive to combustion and dictate how close a structure may be built to heavy growth areas.
Authorities advise planning and practicing quick evacuation scenarios
According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE), residents of wildfire-prone areas should create a Wildfire Action Plan, which should be tailored to the specific situations and needs of individual households. Most importantly, each family member should know and understand the specifics of the plan, and it should be practiced often to alleviate anxiety and stress when the plan must be put into action.
The Wildfire Action Plan should include a designated meeting location for family members in order to determine who has evacuated safely. The meeting location should be close enough in proximity that all family members can get there quickly, but also far enough away to mitigate the immediate danger of the blaze. On a larger scale, several routes that offer the best chance of escape from a community or town affected by a wildfire should be driven regularly by all family members of legal driving age so they are familiar with roads that may look different when obscured by the large amount of smoke caused by wildfires. For those with pets, livestock, or other animals, additional precautions and planning must occur to ensure their safe exodus from affected areas. CAL FIRE also recommends a singular point of contact, outside of the affected family unit, that each individual family member will know to contact in case of separation or inability to reach the designated meeting spot.
The American Red Cross suggests that an emergency supply kit, complete with first aid supplies, a portable radio, emergency contact numbers, food rations, and water is assembled and available for each family member, with extra kits assembled for each vehicle that will be used to escape areas affected by wildfire.
Building code reform and timber industry regulations could temper destruction
While safely escaping a wildfire is the most important thing, a secondary consideration is what is still standing when those affected are allowed to return to their property. Because of their intensity, wildfires tend to quickly engulf and destroy structures in their path, especially those made mostly of wood and other flammable materials. This has led to calls for building code and timber industry reforms in localities highly-prone to wildfires.
Current data indicate that 60% of all new home construction occurs in wildfire-prone areas, with development in those areas increasing the amount of land at risk to fire by roughly 4,000 acres per day. Until recently, most new construction in such areas was built with little regard to the flammability of the building materials, due either to the low cost and availability of certain types of timber or local ordinances mandating that homes be built with materials that would aesthetically assimilate their look with the woodland character and traits of certain communities and surrounding structures. However, with the increase in the frequency of wildfires highly destructive to personal property and the increase in building in fire-prone areas, reform has been a hot topic of conversation at both state and federal levels.
Unfortunately, construction lobbyists, local government bodies, and, in some cases, environmental groups have opposed increased regulations to building codes, most notably helping to block statewide reform in Colorado in 2013 and federal legislation in 2015. Despite this, with several states experiencing the worst wildfires in their respective histories, such as the Carlton Complex Fire in Washington state (the largest single wildfire in state history, burning 252,000 acres), and the Anderson Creek Fire in Kansas and Oklahoma (the largest wildfire in Kansas history, burning 367,620 acres), the collective voices championing reform are not yet silenced.
For instance, legislators in Washington state are currently discussing significant legislation (SB 6657) dealing with wildfire suppression, burn permits in fire-prone areas, and educating homeowners of existing structures about flame-resistant products that can be applied to their homes. Furthermore, President Obama signed the Wildland-Urban Interface Federal Risk Mitigation in May 2016, which, among other things, will restrict the type of materials used in the construction of government buildings in wildfire-prone areas.
No change likely in wildfire frequency
According to the Third National Climate Assessment, climate changes are predicted to lead to hotter and drier weather conditions and earlier snowmelts; contributing to the conditions in which highly intense and destructive wildfires thrive. If they are correct in their predictions, it will take significant reforms and personal awareness to ensure the safety of both humans and structures in the path of destruction. Nature is, of course, beyond human control. However, building structures with flame-retardant materials away from densely forested areas, creative prevention and suppression tactics, and basic common sense and care in the safe disposal of cigarettes and the snuffing out of campfires are well within the human construct, and are surely key to reversing the trend of highly destructive and pervasive wildfires.