Two federal agencies have teamed to create the first-ever system for linking accurate assessments of risk from wildland fires to improved building codes, standards and practices that will help communities better resist the threat. The proposed Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) Hazard Scale addresses fires that occur where developed and undeveloped areas meet, and is described in a report released by the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's U.S. Forest Service (USFS).
"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," says NIST's Alexander Maranghides, who created the new wildfire hazard assessment tool with William Mell of the 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 problem of WUI fires, particularly in the western and southern regions of the United States, has been growing more prevalent as housing developments push into wilderness areas. According to the Bureau of Land Management's National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), the 10 years since 2002 saw an annual average of nearly 71,000 WUI fires recorded and 1.9 million hectares (4.7 million acres) burned. Through the end of October 2012, the number of WUI fires for the year is below the average at slightly more than 54,000, but the amount of damage is nearly double with 3.7 million hectares (9.1 million acres) having burned—approximately 1,000 times the total area of Rhode Island. The monetary toll from the destruction is staggering; the NIFC estimates that federal agencies spend an average of $1.2 billion per year on WUI fire suppression alone, with state and local agencies contributing millions more. Full NIST release