The Texas A&M Forest Service has just released a comprehensive and easy-to-read report on the state's 2011 fire season, with a strong focus on the common denominators of home destruction and survival.
Unlike many such reports from federal and state agencies, that tend to focus heavily on discussion of suppression and response efforts, the Texas wildfire specialists hone in on both the long-term and immediate impacts of development in wildfire-prone areas and document home losses and "saves" in great detail. While the report covers other aspects of the fire season, including its record-breaking statistics of 4 million acres burned and 2,947 homes destroyed, the authors take special care to illustrate and discuss how many homes burned, and how and why others did not.
According to the report, the primary factors leading to home ignition during the 2011 Texas wildfire season include:
- Wildfires driven by high winds sent a profuse amount of embers ahead of the main fire. These winds forced embers into home ventilation systems and underneath pier and beam foundations, igniting homes from within. They also ignited combustible materials — such as railings, decks or awnings — on or around homes.
- Combustible attachments to homes that were not pre-treated with fire-resistant paint or chemicals acted as a fuse that led fire right up to the home. Fires often spread to surrounding homes from vehicles, outbuildings, firewood and other combustible items that already had caught fire and were generating a tremendous amount of heat.
- Windows not designed to withstand heat fractured, creating an opportunity for flames and embers to penetrate homes.
- Landscapes with highly combustible vegetation — such as flammable plants — leading up to a home and landscape elements such as combustible railroad ties, railings and walkways created a path for fire to follow and made homes more susceptible to ignition.
- Homes that caught fire generated so much heat and so many embers that they essentially became fuel for the fire and ignited surrounding homes and structures.
Likewise, the report covers the common reasons why home survived. Anyone who spends time on this blog or the Firewise.org and FireAdapted.org websites can probably guess what that list looks like. As wildland/urban interface and prevention coordinator Justice Jones notes, “The real lesson learned is you have to prepare in advance. Sometimes firefighters can’t save your home. Many homes survived because of actions people took long before the fire occurred.”