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2018
Photo of the La Tuna Fire burning at night in the background behind LA City.
The frequency and severity of recent wildfires has not only impacted homeowners and firefighters but has also impacted various industries across the United States. Some of these impacts are new, such as the destruction of 528 commercial properties and 102 damagedin the recent Camp Fire in Northern California, according to the latest CAL FIRE report.  Researchers are looking for new ways to protect the interests of business owners and the local economies.
One agricultural industry recently impacted has been the wine industry, especially since there have been multiple recent fires in wine country. Smoke from wildfires have negatively affected the flavor of grapes. This phenomena is known as “Smoke Taint”.  Using grapes that have been exposed to wildfire smoke can destroy the flavor of a whole batch of wine. University of California, Davis and the California Winegrowers Association are cooperating on a study to help minimize the effects of smoke as well as determine more accurately which grapes are ruined so growers aren’t overly cautious costing them extra money in loss. The economic losses to the industry are not only the wine but the tourist industry in the area that caters to tourists who visit the vineyards in the fall.
The tourism industry has also been impacted by wildfires in areas across the United States. Around Yosemite National Park, according to one report in July 2018, impacted the local economy with a loss of almost 20 million dollars.
The insurance industry has also been impacted by wildfire loss. For example according to one article, one company State Farm lost in last fall’s Northern California wildfires, about $1.2 billion dollars for 4,540 homeowner claims and about $20.7 million for 1,300 automobile claims for loss. 
According to a May report, wildfires in Oklahoma have impacted cattle rancherscausing a loss of 26 million dollars.
Other infrastructure impacted by wildfires last year includes freeways, cell towers, utilities, and schools. Communities can make effective, science based changes to reduce their risk of loss due to wildfires. Check out the Firewise USA ® webpage todayto learn about how you can help make a difference today where you live, and become a part of the wildfire safety solution.  Tell us what you are doing in your community.
Photo credit: LA City Fire Department

[Update: Nov. 21, 10:30 a.m. EST - The Camp Fire now stands at 153,336 acres, with 80% containment. It has destroyed 13,503 residences and 514 commercial structures. 81 fatalities are now reported. CALFire shares that, “Moderate to heavy rain is forecasted over the fire area from this morning into Saturday.” The Woolsey Fire remains unchanged at 98,949 acres, with 98% containment. Learn more below and see links for updated information.]


The Camp Fire in Northern California's Butte County and the Woolsey Fire in southern Los Angeles and Ventura Counties are breaking records every day.  A good source to follow breaking news is the LA Times Live Feed and on the Twitter hashtags, #Woolseyfire and #Campfire.  NFPA wants to share some information below to help put these fires in context and answer some common questions.   

 

What is the wildfire's size?

While even a small wildfire can put many residents at risk, the sheer size of the wildfires in California can be hard to imagine.  As of Monday morning, the two main fires – the Camp Fire and the Woolsey Fire – had burned a cumulative total of 247,949 acres.  For context, converted to square miles, that is the size of Dallas, Texas.  

 

Is a "Wall of Flame" burning down cities?

As the media illustrates the impacts of wildfire, you may hear about a "wall of flame" pushing through a city and destroying all in its path.  If this is true, why do we often see green trees remain around burnt out structures?  This is because blowing embers, and not a wall of flame from a wildfire, are landing on vulnerable areas of structures to cause home loss.  Watch this video from NFPA's Firewise USA® Program to learn more about the impacts of embers on structures.     

 

Why have there been so many fatalities?

As of Monday morning, 77 fatalities have been reported from the Camp Fire, with an additional three fatalities from the Woolsey Fire.  The LA Times is sharing bios on those who have passed away.  You'll quickly see that the elderly and disabled comprise a majority of those lost.  This is because receiving alert information and evacuating can be a challenge to different demographic groups. 
     


As the death toll rises, the list of those missing topped 1200 over the weekend.  While we will unfortunately learn of more fatalities, the current high missing list is a raw count and contains many discrepancies.   Learn more about the challenge of counting the missing here. 

Why are so many homes burning?

The figures on structural loss from these fires can be staggering to comprehend.  As of Monday morning's CALFire incident report, the Camp Fire has destroyed 11,713 residential structures and 472 commercial structures, with the Woolsey Fire claiming 1500 total structures

 

Urban conflagrations – uncontrolled structure-to-structure ignitions – were common 100 years ago, but regulations, safety messaging, and building improvements largely ended this challenge in our urban environments.  Yet, as we have developed into the "wildland urban interface" – where homes interface with natural areas – this challenge has returned.  The focus on risk and proper rebuilding has become more difficult for local politicians and residents alike.  Learn from historic California examples of this challenge as well.  

 

Is home loss inevitable?

No, and NFPA stresses that residents have a positive role to play in reducing their home's risk to wildfire.  This focus can also ensure that the spread of an urban conflagration stops at the first home impacted by blowing embers from a fire.  Once structure-to-structure ignition starts, firefighting resources become overwhelmed, and total loss ensues.  Watch this Firewise USA® video about how residents can reduce this risk. 

 

Why is a wildfire burning at the end of November?

It is not unusual for California to have large fires in the late fall.  This is the peak season for "Santa Ana" winds, which is the local name for dry down slope winds.  In California, they blow from east to west and as they move downhill, they compress due to increased atmospheric pressure, which causes them to be hot and dry.   The result is that vegetation that has been drying for most of the summer become even drier from the desiccating winds.  

 

So if ignitions happen, fire can move very quickly.  These down slope winds have been clocked up to 70 mph at times.  As with "fire seasons" in general, the fall Santa Ana season has become longer.  In 2017, the Thomas fire in Southern California was actively burning in December.

 

What about climate change and forest health?

Regardless of the cause of climate change, California has been in a multi-year drought and its "fire season" has become longer, both in the spring and fall.  There has been a lot in the news as well about the role that forest thinning would have on reducing the fire risk.  Fire Ecology Historian Steve Pyne wrote a great piece explaining forest health and debunks some of the recent politicized arguments.  

 

As these fires continue, our thoughts continue to be with those affected and those who have lost loved ones.  

 

Tom Welle contributed to this blog

Photo Credit:  NIFC Photo Library, pulled 19 Nov 2018

[Update: Nov. 16, 2:30 p.m. EST - Since Monday's post, the Camp Fire has destroyed over 9,700 residential homes and 290 commercial structures. It currently stands at 141,000 acres burned with 40% containment. 63 fatalities are attributed to the fire. The Woolsey Fire has destroyed 548 residences and is at 98,362 acres burned with 62% containment. The Hill Fire is now 100% contained. As these and other fires burn, see the shared links below for updated information.]

[Update: Nov. 14, 4:45 p.m. EST - Since Monday's post, the Woolsey fire has destroyed hundreds of structures in Los Angeles and Ventura counties, causing three fatalities. and the Camp Fire in Northern California has become the deadliest fire in the state's history, with 48 fatalities. As these and other fires burn, see the shared links below for updated information.]

 

As three separate wildfires burn across California, reports on stretched suppression operations, massive structural losses, and tragic fatalities dominate the news.   

 

According to an L.A. Times briefing (as of Monday 24 November, 10:45 a.m. PST):

 

“The Woolsey fire has scorched more than 85,550 acres, burning homes in Malibu, Westlake Village and Thousand Oaks while threatening parts of Simi Valley and West Hills...

The Hill fire pushed through canyons to the edge of Camarillo Springs and Cal State Channel Islands.

The Camp fire in Northern California’s Butte County has destroyed more than 6,700 structures and killed at least 29. It's the state's most destructive fire and is tied for the state’s deadliest fire.”

It can be difficult to follow the unfolding events presented by the various outlets.  Some that we have found helpful as we follow the wildfires are:

 

 

Earlier today, the Firewise USA® Program shared on social media: “More than 7,800 firefighters continue battling the Camp, Hill and Woolsey CA wildfires. Our heartfelt thanks to all those men and women.” 

 

There are Firewise USA® sites impacted and those residents remain close to the heart of the program as these fires continue to burn.  The resiliency of California residents will once again be tested in the coming days and months but there is no doubt as to their ability to stand up to the challenge. 

 

If you are in California, remember to pay close attention to the official social media accounts, alert systems, and media updates of your local emergency response agencies for the latest fire and evacuation news.

 

Photo credit: Getty Images, pulled 12 November 2018 

NFPA wants to connect with you on wildfire and fire & life safety public education beyond just blogs. Many of the Wildfire Division and Public Education staff are active on Twitter and bring their diverse backgrounds to their real-time updates on NFPA’s outreach, messaging, and new resources. 
This is another outlet for you to learn about what what’s happening and how it can benefit your local efforts. Interact and engage with us where outreach and community risk reduction occur. You don’t need to have a Twitter account to read the Twitter feeds, but if you do, please follow these great staff accounts: 
Karen Berard-Reed(@KBerardReed) and Chelsea Rubadou (@Chelsea_NFPA) share that, “We are Community Risk Reduction Strategists at NFPA working to meet the needs of NFPA stakeholders in the CRR space. We tweet about events, conversations, and innovations that move CRR into the forefront of the fire and life safety conversation.”
Michele Steinberg, NFPA’s Wildfire Division Director, (@Michele_NFPA) brings her nearly 30-years of disaster safety mitigation and education focus to Twitter. She shares that, “I style myself “NFPA’s cheerleader for wildfire safety.” While I do use Twitter to promote what we’re doing at NFPA, I love how the platform allows me to cheer on what others are doing and bring timely issues to folks’ attention by using the all-important hashtag: #wildfire / #hazmit / #Firewise / and #infoknowledge.”  
Lisa Braxton, Public Education Specialist with NFPA, (@LisaReidbraxton) promotes blog posts from NFPA’s Safety Source, along with highlights of new resources and online educational opportunities from NFPA Public Education.
Megan Fitzgerald-McGowanwith the Wildfire Division (@meganfitz34) brings her experience as a wildland firefighter to NFPA’s wildfire division. She promotes NFPA resources related to wildfire risk reduction around homes and communities, encourages a collaborative approach to wildfire preparedness, and shares current wildfire related research.
Andrea Vastis, Senior Director for Public Education at NFPA, (@AndreaVastis) is a public health education professional. She explains that, “I follow AARP Livable Communities and CDC Injury Prevention and Adolescent Health Centers. I communicate about health events, public health observances, and timely updates related to fire and life safety.”
Faith Berrywith the Wildfire Division (@Faithannberry) shares, “I love using Twitter to help people find their way to the latest wildfire news on NFPA's Xchange. Did you know that you can join in on the conversation? I like to hear how our stakeholders are making their communities safer and share their successes.” 
Laura King, NFPA’s Public Education Representative in Canada, (@LauraKingNFPA) brings the Canadian and North American connections to NFPA’s outreach on Twitter. She shares that, “I tweet about all things public-education related in Canada, from Sparky to sprinklers and everything in between!”
I am also on Twitter at (@Lucian_NFPA). In my work managing the Wildfire Division’s international outreach, I share highlights from international conferences, the work of NFPA’s great partner around the world, and lessons from international field tours that NFPA enjoys as it learns more about the global challenge of wildfire community risk reduction. 
In addition to these staff accounts, you can learn more about the Firewise USA® Program (@Firewise); follow the official Twitter profile for the National Fire Protection Association for the latest news on fire and life safety, code info and research (@NFPA); and gain valuable youth-focused public education resources from Sparky the Fire Dog (@Sparky_Fire_Dog). 

The November/December NFPA Journal® is out and its Wildfire column explores social equity in wildfire preparedness and outreach. While fire does not discriminate, we need to make sure we aren’t just talking to the residents who may already be well organized and able to act on wildfire risk reduction. A great example of bridging the class divide in Hawaii points to a positive future.

 

For some backstory, NFPA hosted a listening session in 2018 to learn what “community risk reduction” meant to an audience of fire service and policy implementers. The attendees highlighted a range of topics, but it was a singular mention about the importance of social equity in community outreach that got me thinking about how we reach all communities at risk to wildfire.

 

This question is as important internationally, as it is across the United States. The example from the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization on honoring what communities have already done, as well as their existing capacity to build risk reduction, gave answers to that question. I hope the column gets you thinking too.

 

I am also happy to share that after 5 years and 29 Wildfire columns, this edition will be my last as its writer. Starting this January, NFPA’s Wildfire Division Director, Michele Steinberg, will take the Wildfire column to new heights as she brings her nearly 30 years of disaster safety mitigation and education experience to its voice.

 

5 years is a long time and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to share the diverse issues of wildfire with the readers of NFPA Journal®, and you. The column has explored wildfire evacuation lessons, post fire policy assessments, and the impacts of climate change. It has highlighted the burden on volunteer fire departments, the challenge of rebuilding on local governments, and budgeting. It’s also shown the steadfast resiliency of residents in the face of risk and the positive role NFPA plays.

 

As we look ahead, Michele shares that, “I’m grateful to Lucian for using the column to illuminate so many facets of wildland fire management, risk reduction, and community outreach for the past five years. A column in Journal is truly a bully pulpit to reach, teach, inspire and instigate around urgent concerns for fire and life safety. If I can help readers see things in a new way and question the status quo, I’ll have fulfilled my mission. While wildfires are inevitable, home destruction and human suffering are not. As [NFPA President] Jim Pauley says about our fire and life safety mission, “we still have work to do.” I hope readers will join me in learning about the gaps in our safety and how they can take action to change future outcomes. “

 

Enjoy this month’s column and the many more to come from NFPA.

Weather forecast map of the San Diego, CA area. Color gradient reflects the relative humidity, much of the area is red with percentages below 20%, going in to single digits.
Wildfires can occur anywhere when the conditions are right. One of the most horrific wildfires in the history of the United States occurred in October 1871 in Wisconsin, “The Great Peshtigo Fire.” In that fire alone which occurred on the same date as the Great Chicago Fire over 1,500 people may have perished though there is no accurate record of the loss.
Low humidity, winds, dried vegetation (perhaps from extended periods of drought), the type of topography, and warm temperatures can all contribute to the behavior and spread of a wildfire. But what makes a wildfire a slowly creeping natural event, a normal part of many ecosystems, and what causes it to become a raging mega fire? How can firefighters and residents understand what the potential risks are during their wildfire incident? How do conditions change and can these changes cause wildland firefighters to be put at greater risk while they engage in suppression and mitigation efforts?
Researchers are studying how wildfires burn and how weather conditions can contribute to wildfire severity.  One new study being carried out by Worcester Polytechnic Institute by professor, Albert Simeoni, who was once himself a firefighter in France. The study is examining how fires burn vegetation in a wind tunnel. This experiment tries to help understand how fires grow and spread in natural environments under different wind conditions. Another study, by the Fire Protection Research Foundation (NFPA’s research affiliate), is Pathways for Building Fire Spread at the Wildland Urban Interface, .This was completed in collaboration with Dr. Michael Gollner and his research team from the University of Maryland, and identifies pathways for fire spread at the wildland urban interface and gaps in information to inform prevention and protection strategies.   Yet another Research Foundation study, "A Collection of Geospatial Technological Approaches for Wildland and Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) Fire Events", looks at, “key details involving current applications of geospatial technology to address wildland and WUI fire hazards. They provide a summary of core information regarding the features and specific use of different geospatial tools, with a primary focus on Graphic Information Systems (GIS), Remote Sensing (RS), and Global Positioning System (GPS) technologies.” NOAA is currently providing weather predictors for wildfire severitythat are being used in before and during wildfire response.
Perhaps in the future there will be better wildfire weather warning systems like other severe warning systems available for weather occurrences like tornadoes and hurricanes, which can help residents and firefighters better understand the severity of the fire complex approaching and developing within their community to help them make better suppression and evacuation choices focusing on life safety. Maybe just like a cat 5 hurricane prediction, weather and fire researchers using satellite information and information about vegetation and topography will better be able to model the severity of a potential wildfire event.
Image: courtesy of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

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