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2018

The under-eave area of a house is often overlooked when addressing vulnerabilities that can cause damage or loss during a wildfire. Neglecting this structural component increases susceptibility to heat from flames, which can become trapped allowing fire to spread into attic vents and through the attic. Embers lodged in gaps between blocking and joists can also result in ignition and fire entry into the attic. When embers enter an attic they can ignite stored combustible materials.

 

Research has shown that soffited-eaves and vents are less vulnerable to both ember entry and direct flame contact exposures. Wildfire research conducted by IBHS supports the use of soffited-eave construction; and additional research and guidance from FEMA also suggests a soffited design as the best option.

 

Learn more about under-eave construction and what homeowners can do to reduce risks in that area of the home in the Wildfire Research Fact Sheet series produced by the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) and the National Fire Protection Association’s Firewise USA® program.

 

Each fact sheet in the on-going series provides residents living in wildfire risk areas with important research findings that can improve their home’s chances of surviving a wildfire. The series also provides forestry agencies, fire departments and other stakeholders with an educational outreach tool that can be customized with an agency/department logo.

As the fifth anniversary of the tragic deaths of 19 firefighters in a place called Yarnell Hill approaches, it's a reminder to truly think about what we can learn from an event of this magnitude.

 

Earlier this year, I had an opportunity that I both relished and dreaded - to take what wildland fire leaders refer to as a "staff ride" to the place where 19 of the 20 men who made up the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew lost their lives in a remote corner of Yavapai County, Arizona on June 30, 2013. Organized for the benefit of a group of chiefs, managers and supervisors within the National Association of State Foresters network, the staff ride was coordinated by local leaders who had worked with the crew over the years as well as responded to the multiple fatality incident. Because our group was more than 80 people and the visit had to be planned around a meeting, we compressed what would have been a full day into a drive across rough terrain, a 40-minute hike to the memorial, and back.State forestry and other wildfire specialists hike in toward memorial area in Yarnell Hill.


What exactly is a staff ride? According to the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program, the staff ride has a long history dating from 19th century Europe as a tool for military organizations. It has been adopted by wildland fire managers and is described this way:

"The intent of a staff ride is to put participants in the shoes of the decision makers on a historical incident in order to learn for the future. A staff ride should not be a tactical-fault finding exercise. Participants should be challenged to push past the basic question of 'What happened?' and examine the deeper questions of leadership and decision-making: 'What would I have done in this person's place?' 'How detailed should the guidance from a superior to a subordinate be?' 'Can a senior leader make use of a competent but overzealous subordinate?' 'What explains repeated organizational success or failure?' The study of leadership aspects in a staff ride transcend time and place."

 

For me, as someone whose world is outreach and engagement, not fire and smoke, I still felt that I learned. To be greeted by Darrell Willis, who left the Prescott Fire and Rescue Department a couple of years after the incident, jolted me. I hadn't realized until that moment that I had assumed that after this disaster, I would never see him again. Darrell, a major champion of Firewise USA and Ready Set Go programs, has found a new role in the Arizona State Forestry Department. I learned that even after tragedy, people can still contribute usefully in the area where their passion and talent lies.

Darrell Willis and Michele Steinberg reunited at start of staff ride at Yarnell Hill.

Jeff Whitney, the current Arizona State Forester and State Fire Marshal, impresses me as someone who won't allow the important history of this disaster to be hidden away - that facing it helps all of us learn. It was apparent in the City of Prescott and in areas all around Yavapai County that the community is still grieving its loss. I remember talking with a community leader in one of the many Prescott-area Firewise USA sites right after the incident. She told me how those men were the sons and brothers and fathers that made up their tight-knit community. How during off-season, they were the muscle behind wildfire risk reduction efforts involving heavy lifting. How successful they had been in fighting the Doce Fire just days before. How they could never be replaced. The pain of this loss is never going to go away for this community, although there are wonderful efforts to honor the memory of these men, and to support and assist first responders in the community, including the newly formed Wildland Firefighter Guardian Institute recently covered by Mike Rowe's Returning the Favor program.  

 

My own reaction to seeing the memorial, the actual places where they fell, was predictable (for me). Angry and overwhelmed with sadness and the feeling that this did not have to happen. Frustration but also resignation with the fact that there are things that we will never know about what actually happened and why certain decisions were made. The leaders repeated to us that they don't know why the crew "left the black" - the safe area where they spent hours that day. I wish I had left that event with more answers. I'm sure many people feel that way. Reviewing the staff ride booklet, I realize that the experience is meant to raise questions, and not necessarily provide answers. I can only hope that those who participate in this and other staff rides ask themselves the hard questions and find ways to prevent future tragedies in the line of duty.

Assembled at the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial in Yarnell Hill.

 

All photos by Michele Steinberg, NFPA. Top: hiking in toward the memorial area. Center: Michele Steinberg reunited with former Prescott Fire & Rescue deputy chief Darrell Willis. Bottom: Staff ride participants assembled at the Granite Mountain Hotshots Memorial at Yarnell Hill.

During the first week of May, 2018, the big island of Hawaii hosted the first Hawaii Wildfire Summit.  The conference was hosted by the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, (HWMO), a non-profit dedicated to reducing wildfire risks through local networks and engagement.  They brought together over 140 practitioners, fire management agencies, partners and residents to learn about fire ecology and risk reduction efforts.

 

But just to make sure the attendees understood some of the unique challenges faced in the islands, they somehow managed to schedule a 6.9 earthquake and some significant volcanic activity from Kilauea.  All kidding aside, the resultant lava flow ended up in resident's backyards destroying 36 homes and forcing the evacuation of over 1700 people.  There have been some wildfires caused by the flow, but have been of lesser consequence compared to the lava and being the rainy season, have not grown to significance.

 

That was not the only unique thing I observed while in Hawaii.  As we made our first stop of the Fire Ecology tour, members of our group conducted a "Pule", a sort of Hawaiian prayer song that is a "protocol"  of orientation to place and a recognition of all that came before.  It is also a recognition of the importance of the natural resources and statement of our intent that day with relation to those resources.  It was a very grounding experience to the close relationship that those living in Hawaii have with their natural environment.  Maybe that explains the  lack of wide scale panic as lava was slowly flowing through neighborhood streets, but rather an acceptance of a way of life.

 

This is also shown in the approach HWMO uses in helping communities reduce wildfire risk.  Having conversations with residents to see what is needed rather than telling them what they need is their desired method.  Developing the relationship and then figuring out what to do to reduce risk works well here.  Since their first

Firewise USA ® site, Kohala by the Sea, came on board in 2004, they have now grown to a total of 11 sites on two islands.

 

Also while I was there, National Wildfire Community Preparedness Day happened.  I was part of a "Colorado Contingent" attending the conference that included Emily Troisi from the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network and Cesar Gellido from "Saws and Slaws", both from Boulder County.  We attended a work day at the Kohala Waterfront community and Cesar broke out the chainsaw and began helping the residents trim trees while they removed and hauled the slash.  I guess you don't have to live there to help be part of the solution.

 

So my hat is off to Elizabeth Pickett, Pablo Beimler and the rest of the HWMO staff as well as their partners from the State of Hawaii, the National Park Service, the Department of Defense and Hawaii County Fire Department for setting a high bar for their first wildfire summit.  As Hawaii wrestles with economic and natural forces that affect its wildfire situation, there is much to be learned from how they stand together, engage and adapt to wildfire.

In the May/June edition of NFPA Journal®, the Safety Policy column by Meghan Housewright explores the fact that while its clear that the public and government leaders value fire services, city budgets too often overlook wildfire, one of the fastest growing fire safety threats.

 

The column reflects on a recent study that provides guidance on leveraging local data for more focused funding. She also discusses how NFPA’s Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute can help communities and fire departments make wildfire the budget-line priority it needs to be.

 

I recently spoke with Meghan about the column and what stood out to her about these budget challenges. She shared that, “Tight budgets are a tough reality but people need to understand the consequences of relying on periodically available grants, or neglecting mitigation entirely. The most interesting point about the survey of residents from Rapid City [South Dakota] is that 53 percent reported being willing to increase taxes before cutting fire services. It’s an opportunity for the fire service to make the mitigation case to the community and they should certainly take it.”

 

Learn more about navigating the budget and community risk reduction landscape in the current edition of NFPA Journal®.

 

Photo Credit: Lucian Deaton.  Pulled from NFPA Journal® online 21 May 2018.  

Far from an academic question, the Cape Town, South Africa, Fire Department and the 4 million residents it serves provide a great example of building operational and community resiliency for wildfire in a time of server drought and strict water restrictions. Learn more in the May/June edition of NFPA Journal®’s Wildfire column.

 

Back in March, NFPA visited with its wildfire community outreach partners in South Africa and landed in the middle of a water crisis. Years of drought have reduced the reservoirs that supply Cape Town with its drinking water and the city faced a “Day Zero” reality, when the taps would actually run dry.

 

In response, residents, businesses, and agriculture, all reduced their water consumption and reconsidered the value of something that we usually take for granted.  I did as well as a guest and have tried to reduce my unnecessary water use back at home in the USA.

 

While there, I had the great opportunity to talk with Ian Schnetler, Cape Town’s chief fire officer, about how municipal water restrictions and the looming threat of “Day Zero” changed how the department deals with wildfire and the culture of the fire department in it use of water.  Learn from his insight and actions in the current edition of NFPA Journal®’s Wildfire column.  

Picture Credit: Lucian Deaton

 

Photo shared by April Hale from Stevensville, Montana 

 

People are telling us what they did on Wildfire Community Preparedness Day.  The best part of their incredible stories is the fact that they had fun, while at the same time creating safer neighborhoods.  Francis Reynolds from New Mexico told me, “It was fun, and we got a lot done.”  Activities completed on the day included helping seniors, cleaning up roadways, scouts helping with neighborhood clean-up, families working together, seniors maintaining common areas and more.

 

It was heartwarming to know that fire departments got the help they needed, cities were able to help senior residents be safer, and hear stories about how neighborhoods worked together and not only created safer places to live but grew bonds of friendship, all on the same day. 

 

A wonderful saying shared with me by one of the communities that participated on the day by Ralph Waldo Emerson summarized what many of these hard working folks shared with me, “Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year.”  Many of them had such a great time working and yes, having fun together on Prep Day that they want to continue working on wildfire safety projects throughout the year.

                                                                                                       Photo shared by Gayle Ehlman in Ryderwood, Washington                                                            

NFPA appreciates the support received from State Farm to provide the awards to 150 community and individual projects in 36 states from across the United States.  These people have made a difference working together on projects that reduce their risk of loss.  Many other communities also participated in this grass roots wildfire safety effort.  We will be sharing some of their stories soon. Check out the Wildfire Community Preparedness Day page for success stories today.  Tell us how you participated!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo shared by Frances Reynolds in San Cristóbal, New Mexico

Interest and participation in the national Firewise USA® resident focused, wildfire risk reduction program, continues to gain momentum with 1,503 active sites located throughout 42 states. The program’s participants are residents living in areas with wildfire risks, completing work at their individual properties and in tandem with their neighbors and broader neighboring residents to complete the recognition program’s annual requirements.

 

Administered by the National Fire Protection Association, the Firewise USA® program is a collaborative partnership with each of the participating state’s forestry agencies and their designated program liaison. Using a framework that provides residents with a set of annual requirements needed to retain an “In Good Standing” status; residents must demonstrate and document their successful achievements every calendar year. That criteria includes a yearly investment in risk reduction actions that when completed can increase a home’s chances of survival during a wildfire.

 

Currently, participating sites represent more than 1.5 million residents with a self-reported investment of more than $54 million dollars in risk reduction activities over the past twelve months.

 

Connect with the Firewise USA® team to learn how you and your neighbors can become a recognized Firewise USA® site and begin working towards making where you live a safer place for residents and firefighters responding to wildfires.

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