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Key Points of Cohen's Paper

Introduction and Bulleted Points by Timothy Ingalsbee, Ph.D.
Director, Western Fire Ecology Center
Eugene, Oregon


Jack Cohen, research scientist at the Fire Sciences Laboratory in the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain Research Station, presented the paper below at the Fire Economics Symposium in San Diego, California on April 12, 1999. His research findings could potentially eliminate arguments for increased public lands logging, road-building, and grazing as alleged means of protecting private homes from wildfires.

In the context of the Quincy Library Group Rider, the Sierra Framework and ICBEMP regional EISs, Helen Chenoweth's bill H.R. 1522, and literally dozens of timber sales billed as "fuels reduction for fire protection" projects, the implications of Cohen's research are profound. Also, some fear-based obstacles to the use of prescribed fire for habitat maintenance and ecosystem restoration can be removed.

Key Points of Jack Cohen's Research Paper

  • Home ignitability, rather than wildland fuels, is the principal cause of home losses during wildland/urban interface fires. Key items are flammable roofing materials (e.g. cedar shingles) and the presence of burnable vegetation (e.g. ornamental trees, shrubs, wood piles) immediately adjacent to homes.

  • Cohen's Structure Ignition Assessment Model (SIAM) indicates that intense flame fronts (e.g. crown fires) will not ignite wooden walls at distances greater than 40 meters (approx. 130 feet) away. Field tests of experimental crown fires revealed that wooden walls can successfully survive intense flame fronts from as close as 10 meters (approx. 30 feet) away!

  • Current strategies for wildland fuel reduction may be inefficient and ineffective for reducing home losses, for extensive wildland fuel reduction on public lands does not effectively reduce home ignitability on private lands.

  • The so-called "wildland/urban interface zone" overgeneralizes and misrepresents the zone of prime fire risk and fuel hazards: the home and its adjacent vegetation.

  • Opportunities to use prescribed fire for the sake of ecosystem restoration may be greatly enhanced in wildland/urban interface areas if home ignitability is reduced.

  • The primary and ultimate responsibility for home wildfire protection lies with private homeowners, not public land management agencies (or taxpayers).

  • Given nonflammable roofs, Stanford Research Institute found that 95 percent of homes survived where vegetation clearance of 10 to 18 meters was maintained around the homes.

Reducing the Wildland Fire Threat to Homes: Where and How Much?

By Jack D. Cohen, Ph.D.
Research Physical Scientist
Rocky Mountain Research Station


Abstract Understanding how ignitions occur is critical for effectively mitigating home fire losses during wildland fires. The threat of life and property losses during wildland fires is a significant issue for Federal, state, and local agencies that have responsibilities involving homes within and adjacent to wildlands. Agencies have shifted attention to communities adjacent to wildlands through pre-suppression and suppression activities. Research for the Structure Ignition Assessment Model (SIAM) that includes modeling, experiments, and case studies, indicates that effective residential fire loss mitigation must focus on the home and its immediate surroundings. This has significant implications for agency policy and specific activities such as hazard mapping and fuel management.

The threat of life and property losses during wildland fires is a significant issue for Federal, state, and local fire and planning agencies who must consider residential development within and adjacent to wildlands. The 1995 USDA Forest Service Strategic Assessment of Fire Management (USDA Forest Service 1995) lists five principal fire management issues. One of those issues is the "loss of lives, property, and resources associated with fire in the wildland/urban interface." The report further identifies "the management of fire and fuels in the wildland/urban interface" as topic for further assessment. More than a Forest Service issue, the National Wildland/Urban Interface Fire Protection Program, a multi-agency endeavor, has been established for over a decade and is sponsored by the Department of Interior land management agencies, the USDA Forest Service, the National Association of State Foresters, and the National Fire Protection Association. This program also has an advisory committee associated with the multi-agency National Wildfire Coordinating Group. These examples indicate that the wildland fire threat to homes significantly influences fire management policies and suggests that this issue has significant economic impacts through management activities, direct property losses and associated tort claims.

The wildland fire threat to homes is commonly termed the wildland/urban interface (WUI) fire problem. This and similar terms (e.g., wildland/urban intermix) refer to an area or location where a wildland fire can potentially ignite homes. A senior physicist at the Stanford Research Institute, C.P. Butler (1974), coined the term "urban-wildland interface" and described this fire problem as follows:
"In its simplest terms, the fire interface is any point where the fuel feeding a wildfire changes from natural (wildland) fuel to man-made (urban) fuel. ...For this to happen, wildland fire must be close enough for its flying brands or flames to contact the flammable parts of the structure." In his definition, Butler provides important references to the characteristics of this problem. He identifies homes ("urban") as potential fuel and indicates that the distance between the wildland fire and the home ("close enough") is an important factor for structure ignition. How close the fire is to a home relates to how much heat the structure will receive.

These two factors, the homes and fire proximity, represent the fuel and heat "sides" of the fire triangle, respectively. The fire triangle--fuel, heat, and oxygen--represents the critical factors for combustion. Fires burn and ignitions occur only if a sufficient supply of each factor is present. By characterizing the home as fuel and the heat from flames and firebrands, we can describe a home's ignitability. An understanding of home ignitability provides a basis for reducing potential WUI fire losses in a more effective and efficient manner than current approaches.

Ignition and Fire Spread are a Local Process

Fire spreads as a continually propagating process, not as a moving mass. Unlike a flash flood or an avalanche where a mass engulfs objects in its path, fire spreads because the locations along the path meet the requirements for combustion. For example, C.P. Butler (1974) provides the following 1848 account by Henry Lewis about pioneers being caught on the Great Plains during a fire.
"...When the emigrants are surprised by a prairie fire, they mow down the grass on a patch of land large enough for the wagon, horse, etc., to stand on. They then pile up the grass and light it. The same wind which is sweeping the original fire toward them now drives the second fire away from them. Thus, although they are surrounded by a sea of flames, they are relatively safe. Where the grass is cut, the fire has no fuel and goes no further. In this way, experienced people may escape a terrible fate." It is important to note that the complete success of this technique also relies on their wagons and other goods not igniting and burning from firebrands. This account describes a situation that has similarities with the WUI fire problem.

A wildland fire does not spread to homes unless the homes meet the fuel and heat requirements sufficient for ignition and continued combustion. In the prairie fire situation, sufficient fuel was removed (by their escape fire) adjacent to the wagons to prevent burning (and injury) and the wagons were ignition resistant enough to not ignite and burn from firebrands. Similarly, the flammables adjacent to a home can be managed with the home's materials and design chosen to minimize potential firebrand ignitions. This can occur regardless of how intensely or fast spreading other fires are burning. Reducing WUI fire losses must involve a reduction in the flammability of the home (fuel) in relation to its potential severe-case exposure from flames and firebrands (heat). The essential question remains as to how much reduction in flammables (e.g., how much vegetative fuel clearance) must be done relative to the home fuel characteristics to significantly reduce the potential home losses associated with wildland fires.

Insights for Reducing Ignitions from Flames

Recent research provides insights for determining the vegetation clearance required for reducing home ignitions. Structure ignition modeling, fire experiments, and WUI fire case studies provide a consistent indication of the fuel and heat required for home ignitions.The Structure Ignition Assessment Model (SIAM) (Cohen 1995) assesses the potential ignitability of a structure related to the WUI fire context. SIAM calculates the amount of heat transferred to a structure from a flame source based on the flame characteristics and the flame distance from a structure. Then, given this thermal exposure, SIAM calculates the amount of time required for the occurrence of wood ignition and flaming (Tran and others 1992). Based on severe-case assumptions of flame radiation and exposure time, SIAM calculations indicate that large wildland flame fronts (e.g., forest crown fires) will not ignite wood surfaces (e.g., the typical variety of exterior wood walls) at distances greater than 40 meters (Cohen and Butler [In press]). Figure 1 illustrates this by displaying the amount of heat a wall would receive from flames depending on its distance from the fire (the incident radiant heat flux decreases as the distance increases). This figure also displays the calculated time required for a wood wall to ignite depending on its distance from a flame front of the given height and width. But the flame's burning time compared to the required ignition time is important. If at some distance the fire front produces a heat flux sufficient to ignite a wood wall, but the flaming duration is less than that required for ignition, then ignition will not occur. For example, Figure 1 shows that at a distance of 40 meters, the radiant heat flux is less than 20 kilowatts per square meter, which corresponds to a minimum ignition time of greater than 10 minutes. Crown fire experiments in forests and shrublands indicate that the burning duration of these large flames is on the order of one minute at a specific location . This is because these wildland fires depend on the rapid consumption of the fine dead and live vegetation (e.g., forest crown fires).

Figure 1-- SIAM calculates the incident radiant heat flux (energy/unit-area/time reaching a surface) and the minimum time for piloted ignition (ignition with a small ignition flame or spark) as a function of distance for the given flame size. The flame is assumed to be a uniform, parallel plane, black body emitter.

Experimental fire studies associated with the International Crown Fire Modeling Experiment (Alexander and others 1998) generally concur with the SIAM calculations. Data were obtained from instrumented wall sections that were placed 10 meters from the forest edge of the crown fire burn plots. Comparisons between SIAM calculations and the observed heat flux data indicate that SIAM overestimates the amount of heat received . For example, the SIAM calculated potential radiant heat flux for an experimental crown fire was 69 kW/sq meter as compared to the measured maximum of 46 kW/sq meter. This is expected since SIAM assumes a uniform and constant heat source and flames are not uniform and constant. Thus, the SIAM calculations in Figure 1 for an arbitrary flame front represent a severe-case estimate of the heat received and the potential for ignition. The distances in Figure 1 represent an upper estimate of the separation required to prevent flame ignitions.

Past fire case studies also generally concur with SIAM estimates and the crown fire observations. Analyses of southern California home losses done by the Stanford Research Institute for the 1961 Belair-Brentwood Fire (Howard and others 1973) and by the University of California, Berkeley, for the 1990 Painted Cave Fire (Foote and Gilless 1996) are consistent with SIAM estimates and the experimental crown fire data. Given nonflammable roofs, Stanford Research Institute (Howard and others 1973) found a 95 percent survival with a clearance of 10 to 18 meters and Foote and Gilless (1996) at Berkeley, found 86 percent home survival with a clearance of 10 meters or more.
The results of the diverse analytical methods are congruent and consistently indicate that ignitions from flames occur over relatively short distances--tens of meters not hundreds of meters. The severe-case estimate of SIAM indicates distances of 40 meters or less. Experimental wood walls did not ignite at 10 meters when exposed to experimental crown fires. And, case studies found that vegetation clearance of at least 10 meters was associated with a high occurrence of home survival.

As previously mentioned, firebrands are also a principal WUI ignition factor. Highly ignitable homes can ignite during wildland fires without fire spreading near the structure. This occurs when firebrands are lofted downwind from fires. The firebrands subsequently collect on and ignite flammable home materials and adjacent flammables. Firebrands that result in ignitions can originate from wildland fires that are at a distance of 1 kilometer or more. For example, during the 1980 Panorama Fire (San Bernardino, CA), the initial firebrand ignitions to homes occurred when the wildland fire was burning in low shrubs approximately one kilometer from the neighborhood. During severe WUI fires, firebrand ignitions are particularly evident for homes with flammable roofs. Often these houses ignite and burn without the surrounding vegetation also burning. This suggests that homes can be more flammable than the surrounding vegetation. For example, during the 1991 Spokane, WA fires , houses with flammable roofs ignited without the adjacent vegetation already burning. Although firebrands may be lofted over considerable distances to ignite homes, a home's materials and design and its adjacent flammables largely determine the firebrand ignition potential.

Research Conclusions

SIAM modeling, crown fire experiments, and WUI fire case studies show that effective fuel modification for reducing potential WUI fire losses need only occur within a few tens of meters from a home, not hundreds of meters or more from a home. This research indicates that home losses can be effectively reduced by focusing mitigation efforts on the structure and its immediate surroundings. Those characteristics of a structure's materials and design and the surrounding flammables that determine the potential for a home to ignite during wildland fires (or any fires outside the home) will, hereafter, be referred to as home ignitability.

The evidence suggests that wildland fuel reduction for reducing home losses may be inefficient and ineffective. Inefficient because wildland fuel reduction for several hundred meters or more around homes is greater than necessary for reducing ignitions from flames. Ineffective because it does not sufficiently reduce firebrand ignitions. To be effective, given no modification of home ignition characteristics, wildland vegetation management would have to significantly reduce firebrand production and potentially extend for several kilometers away from homes.

Management Implications

These research conclusions redefine the WUI fire problem as a home ignitability issue largely independent of wildland fuel management issues. Consequently, this description has significant implications for the necessary actions and accompanying economic considerations for fire agencies.
One aspect of the USDA Forest Service approach to reducing their WUI fire problem is to determine where the problem is and focus fuel management activities in those areas. The Strategic Assessment of Fire Management (1995) states:

"...The Forest Service should manage National Forest lands to mitigate hazards and enhance the ability to control fires in the wildland/urban interface. The risk of wildland fire to communities can be lessened by reducing hazards on Forest Service lands adjacent to built-up areas. ...Broad-scale assessment processes for the next generation of forest plans should identify high risk areas related to the wildland/urban interface. ...The highest risk areas within the United States should be identified and mitigation efforts directed to these locations."

The Strategic Assessment describes a costly, intensive and extensive WUI hazard mapping and mitigation effort specifically for reducing home fire losses. As described, this approach is not necessary.
The congruence of research findings from different analytical methods suggests that home ignitability is the principal cause of home losses during wildland fires. Any WUI home fire loss assessment method that does not account for home ignitability will be critically under specified and likely unreliable. Thus, land classification and mapping related to potential home loss must assess home ignitability. Home ignitability also dictates that effective mitigating actions focus on the home and its immediate surroundings rather than on extensive wildland fuel management. Because homeowners typically assert their authority for the home and its immediate surroundings, the responsibility for effectively reducing home ignitability can only reside with the property owner rather than wildland agencies. The next sections further address the management implications related to WUI hazard mapping, fuel reduction, and responsibilities.

Mapping Home Loss Potential

As stated, the evidence indicates that home ignitions depend on the home materials and design and only those flammables within a few tens of meters of the home (home ignitability). The wildland fuel characteristics beyond the home site have little if any significance to WUI home fire losses. Thus, the wildland fire threat to homes is better defined by home ignitability, an ignition and combustion consideration, than by the location and behavior of potential wildland fires.

This has implications for identifying WUI fire problem areas and suggests that the geographical implication of the term "wildland/urban interface" as a general area or zone misrepresents the physical nature of the wildland fire threat to homes. The wildland fire threat to homes is not where it happens related to wildlands (a location), but how it happens related to home ignitability (the combustion process). Therefore, to reliably map WUI home fire loss potential, home ignitability must be the principal mapping characteristic.

Wildland Fuel Hazard Reduction

Extensive wildland vegetation management does not effectively change home ignitability. This should not imply that wildland vegetation management is without a purpose and should not occur for other reasons. However, it does imply the imperative to separate the problem of the wildland fire threat to homes from the problem of ecosystem sustainability due to changes in wildland fuels. For example, a WUI area could be a high priority for extensive vegetation management due to high aesthetic, watershed, erosion, or other values, but not for reducing potential home fire losses. Vegetation management strategies would likely be different without including the WUI home fire loss issue. It also suggests that given a low level of home ignitability (reduced wildland fire threat to homes), fire use opportunities for sustaining ecosystems may increase in and around WUI locations.

WUI Home Loss Responsibility

Home ignitability implies that homeowners have the ultimate responsibility for WUI home fire loss potential. As shown, the ignition and flammability characteristics of a structure and its immediate surroundings determine the home fire loss potential. Thus, the home should not be considered a victim of wildland fire, but rather a potential participant in the continuation of the wildland fire. Home ignitability, i.e., the potential for WUI home fire loss, is the homeowner's choice and responsibility.
However, public and management perceptions may impede homeowners from taking principal responsibility. For example, the Federal Wildland Fire Management, Policy and Program Review (1995) observes, "There is a widespread misconception by elected officials, agency managers, and the public that wildland/urban interface protection is solely a fire service concern." In a Journal of Forestry article, Beebe and Omi (1993) concur, stating that, "Public reaction to wildfire suggests that many Americans want competent professionals to manage fire flawlessly, reducing the risks to life, property, and public lands to nil." These statements agree with Bradshaw's (1988) description of the societal roles in the WUI problem. He observes that homeowners expect that fire protection will be provided by others. Contrary to these expectations for fire protection, the fire services have neither the resources for effectively protecting highly ignitable homes during severe WUI fires, nor the authority to reduce home ignitability.

An Alternative

Home ignitability ultimately implies the necessity for a change in the relationship between homeowners and the fire services. Instead of pre-suppression and fire protection responsibilities residing with fire agencies, homeowners take the principal responsibility for assuring adequately low home ignitability. The fire services become a community partner providing homeowners with technical assistance as well as fire response in a strategy of assisted and managed community self-sufficiency (Cohen and Saveland 1997). For success, this perspective must be shared and implemented equally by homeowners and the fire services.

Literature Cited

Alexander, M.E.; Stocks, B.J.; Wotton, B.M.; Flannigan, M.D.; Todd, J.B.; Butler, B.W.; Lanoville, R.A. 1998. The international crown fire modelling experiment: an overview and progress report. In: Proceedings of the second symposium on fire and forest meteorology; 1998 January 12-14; Phoenix, AZ. Boston, MA: American Meteorological Society; 20-23.

Beebe, Grant S.; Omi, Philip N. 1993. Wildland burning: the perception of risk. Journal of Forestry 91(9): 19-24.

Bradshaw, William G. 1988. Fire protection in the urban/wildland interface: who plays what role? Fire Technology 24(3): 195-203.

Butler, C.P. 1974. The urban/wildland fire interface. In: Proceedings of Western states section/Combustion Institute papers, vol. 74, no. 15; 1974 May 6-7; Spokane, WA. Pullman, WA: Washington State Univ.; 1-17.

Cohen, Jack D. 1995. Structure ignition assessment model (SIAM). In: Weise, David R.; Martin, Robert E., technical coordinators. Proceedings of the Biswell symposium: fire issues and solutions in urban interface and wildland ecosystems. 1994 February 15-17; Walnut Creek, CA. Gen. Tech. Rep. PSW-GTR-158. Albany, CA: Pacific Southwest Research Station, Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture; 85-92.

Cohen, Jack D.; Butler, Bret W. [In press]. Modeling potential ignitions from flame radiation exposure with implications for wildland/urban interface fire management. In: Proceedings of the 13th conference on fire and forest meteorology. 1996 October 27-31; Lorne, Victoria, Australia. Fairfield, WA: International Association of Wildland Fire.

Cohen, Jack; Saveland, Jim. 1997. Structure Ignition Assessment Can Help Reduce Fire Damages in the W-UI. Fire Management Notes 57(4): 19-23.

Foote, Ethan I.D.; Gilless, J. Keith. 1996. Structural survival. In: Slaughter, Rodney, ed. California's I-zone. Sacramento, CA: CFESTES; 112-121.

Howard, Ronald A.; North, D. Warner; Offensend, Fred L.; Smart, Charles N. 1973. Decision analysis of fire protection strategy for the Santa Monica mountains: an initial assessment. Menlo Park, CA: Stanford Research Institute. 159 p.

Tran, Hao C.; Cohen, Jack D.; Chase, Richard A. 1992. Modeling ignition of structures in wildland/urban interface fires. In: Proceedings of the 1st international fire and materials conference; 1992 September 24-25; Arlington, VA. London, UK: Inter Science Communications Limited; 253-262.

USDA. 1995. Strategic assessment of fire management in the USDA Forest Service. 1995 January 13. Washington, DC: U.S. Forest Service, Department of Agriculture; 31 p.

USDI/USDA. 1995. Federal wildland fire management: policy & review. 1995 December 18. Washington, DC: Department of the Interior and Department of Agriculture; 45 p.

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