Structure Protection Equipment Against the Threat of Wildfire

Fire Rages above Colorado Springs

Fire Rages above Colorado Springs

When encouraging preparedness against the threat of wildfire we should always consider the human dynamics at play. There is a physiological impact related to the loss of homes during a wildfire event. The emotional repercussions of losing personal belongings are far greater than losing the house itself to the fire, which can always be rebuilt better and bigger. This is why we need to inspire people to reduce the wildfire risk to property, infrastructure and public safety in the wildland/urban interface by helping communities become fire adapted[1].

 

Structure protection and, more specifically, the use of Structure Protection Equipment (SPU) to protect structures and assist fire suppression in the USA and in Canada have become increasingly recognized as a key component in the wildfire suppression tool kit. Most of this interest has been developed more recently over the past 10 years. SPU equipment or packages available on the market are comprised of components combining existing wildland fire suppression equipment such as a high-pressure fire pump with irrigation type technology.

 

Mounting operational evidence shows that the use of this equipment, combined with other suppression tactics, consistently improves our ability to save structures from the threat of wildfires. Despite the experience gained during suppression activities and prescribed burning operations, there has been very limited use of SPU in a pre-emptive or preparedness mode to help prepare for wildfires in high-risk interface areas. Even with the mounting operational, anecdotal and scientific evidence on the effectiveness of SPU there remains reluctance, especially in the USA, but also in Canada, to fully embrace their use in a more proactive manner.

 

There is a clear lack of understanding and an information gap when it comes to SPU that can explain why the use of such equipment is rarely considered in the context of preparedness similar to creating a defensible space around homes and private property. When people are looking at ways to get ready and prepare themselves in the event of a wildfire, the information is simply not available in a prominent manner. FireSmart Canada has even recognized the absence of this relevant information regarding SPU.  Officials from that association have already indicated that a rewrite of the FireSmart manual will be taking place over the next two years and will most likely include a chapter on SPU to help close the knowledge gap in Canada.

 

SPU is a value-added tool to all the FireSmart and Firewise measures. In an ideal world, homeowners would create a defensible space built with fire resistant materials and a sprinkler system installed. Due to the historical success of suppression agencies, a lot of people don’t necessarily see the need to prepare themselves for a wildfire event.

Wild Fire

Wild Fire

 

In the years to come, there is an expected growth of the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI), the geographic location where the forest meets the community, due to the increase in residential homes and businesses in that area. Coupled with climate change predictions, a doubling of intense fire events are forecasted by 2040. Expansion of the WUI can mostly be attributed to the corresponding development into more remote wildland areas to exploit natural resources and back country recreation opportunities. The progression is causing the area of concern for fire suppression agencies to grow rapidly. Consider British Columbia, for example, where the Oil & Gas development in the NE corner of BC has grown remarkably. Ten years ago, there were only several hundred assets located in the NE associated with the Oil & Gas industry. As of 2012, this industry reported; more than 26,000 wells; 60,000 km of pipelines; 4,000 facilities such as camps and others; $20m/day economic activity with a projected $5 billion to be invested in the next 10 years. Essentially, an area of BC where the fire suppression agency historically allowed fires to run their natural course, is now requiring considerable suppression efforts to protect valuable assets. The same kind of industrial growth can be seen across Canada and in the USA. This continues to stretch the capacity of suppression agencies further and further, putting much more emphasis on the need for improved preparedness, increased risk management for private land owners and companies to take on more direct responsibilities to protect their own assets.

 

Fire agencies have pursued the insurance industry for some time to pay more attention to wildfires and their associated risks to insurable losses. Driving the engagement of the insurance industry with wildfire issues would reinforce and accelerate bigger changes such as what we see with the use of indoor sprinklers that are becoming a requirement in more places. However, it is most likely that the interest of such companies will be stimulated after major catastrophic wildfire events associated to insurable losses. Even if things are moving slowly, they are already changing, the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC) website shows information for homeowners regarding FireSmart and suggests positive steps in preparation against wildfires. In the spring of 2014, IBC ran large advertisements in Canadian national newspapers explaining the value of Fire Smarting your property to protect your home or business from wildfires prior to the upcoming fire season[2]. In BC, insurance companies are refusing renewal of policies to their customers during the fire season if there is a major fire not declared out (as posted on the Ministry public website) within 30km of the policy holder’s geographic location. Essentially, this is leaving people without insurance coverage for months and placing intense pressure on fire agencies. There are other examples of the insurance industry changing their views regarding the importance of wildfire risks in the USA. Some companies, such as United States Automobile Association (USAA)[3], in partnership with Firewise in 2014, began offering reduced policy costs for property owners in the state of California who live in a community that met Firewise standards[4].

 

In many provinces such as Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan the use of SPU is considered the tactic of choice, particularly for large northern fires were the only values at risk are scattered structures or remote communities. In these cases, rather than spending millions of dollars trying to put a fire out that might in fact be ecologically beneficial, they have resorted to a strategy of using SPU to protect the assets out in front of the fire as opposed to full on suppression. One of the key challenges to taking this approach is the political dynamics of not taking full suppression. The general public and political decision makers often see this approach as not doing everything possible to prevent damage.

 

In British Columbia the use of SPU is now a standard component of the suppression tool kit whenever structures are being threatened. Increasingly, structural fire departments are taking the initiative to buy their own SPU equipment in BC so that they don’t have to rely on the province’s central cache and because they have learned to recognize the value of this equipment to protect structures. A very similar approach to SPU use can be found in Australia where sprinklers are deployed to help protect structures from an oncoming wildfire. Suppression agencies have incorporated their use wherever possible. Much less evidence can be found where SPU are being used in preparedness or pre-emptive manner to help mitigate or protect structures from future wildfire events. There are some notable exceptions to this, including several examples from Australia where pre-installed sprinklers are directly attributed credit for saving homes.

 

The key factors in considering the need for increased use of SPU and the potential for this use to grow in the future can be boiled down to four main drivers; SPU effectiveness in protecting structures; cost; size of the WUI and other associated areas that have structures at risk; climate change and potential for more intense wildfire events.

 

The unprecedented development in the WUI and other high-risk zones, combined with the projected climate change factors, create conditions for a perfect storm with some certainty that increased damage to structures from wildfire will occur unless current land management, suppression and preparedness strategies are adapted to this new emerging reality. The situation is already causing governments and fire agencies around the world to rethink their ability to suppress all wildfires as well as their ability to provide the historical level of protection to assets. Laws and regulations are evolving and are placing more emphasis on land developers, industry sectors, local governments and private land owners/homeowners to take on further responsibility to help protect their assets to reduce government liability and sole reliance on fire suppression agencies. Given the current and projected realities we can expect this trend to evolve in the years to come and the need to be ready and fire adapted will be more present than ever[5].

 

[1] FireSmart Canada Home Internet Site (https://www.firesmartcanada.ca/)

 

[2] Insurance Bureau of Canada – National association representing companies who insure homes, cars and businesses across Canada.

 

[3] The United Services Automobile Association (USAA) is a Texas-based Fortune 500 financial services group of companies offering banking, investing, and insurance to people and families that serve, or served, in the United States military. At the end of 2014, there were 10.7 million members.

[4] See article as explained on the Fire Wise web site (www.firewise.org/)

 

[5] Based on the expert opinion of Brian Simpson, Wildfire Management Services