Occupational Health & Safety

Hazard Scale Assesses Wildfire Risks

NIST and the U.S. Forest Service created the Wildland Urban Interface Hazard Scale to help communities prepare for fires that occur where developed and undeveloped areas meet.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), wildfires are increasing as housing developments push into wilderness areas, to the point that more than 54,000 wildfires during the first 10 months of 2012 burned 9.1 million acres –- nearly twice the annual average for wildfire-burned acreage from 2002 to 2011.

Now, two men from NIST and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's U.S. Forest Service (USFS) have created the Wildland Urban Interface Hazard Scale to help communities prepare for this rising threat. The scale links accurate assessments of wildland fire risk to improved building codes, standards, and practices for resisting the threat, NIST announced Dec. 5.

"Structures in areas susceptible to other natural hazards, such as earthquakes, hurricanes and tornados, can be built to address the potential risks from these disasters because we have measurement scales that define that risk — the Richter for quakes, the Saffir-Simpson for hurricanes, and the Enhanced Fujita for tornados," said NIST's Alexander Maranghides, who created the tool with William Mell of USFS. "Now, we have proposed a scale specifically for wildland fires that will allow us to link exposure to improved codes and standards and, as a result, save lives, property and dollars."

The WUI Hazard Scale is designed to consistently measure the expected risks from fire and embers during a WUI fire event for specific locations within a community. "Wildfires are among the few natural disasters in which risk levels can rapidly change as the event progresses and the threat doesn't weaken with distance away from a well-defined epicenter, as in a tornado," Mell explained. "For example, if your home is nestled deep within a neighborhood away from the leading edge of a fire, you might not be at risk early on. However, the danger to your home dramatically increases if a neighboring house, the surrounding landscape, or a nearby vehicle catches on fire."

The ratings of various locations can be used to build a map of differing levels of risk throughout a community, allowing its leaders to pinpoint where hardened structures are most needed. "In effect," said Maranghides, "we may be able to mitigate the entire dynamic of a WUI fire event if the frontline structures don't ignite."

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