My World's on Fire

By Colleen Hagerty

A wildfire 'yardstick'


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My World's on Fire
A wildfire 'yardstick'
By Colleen Hagerty • Issue #62 • View online
Thanks for reading my World’s on Fire, a free weekly newsletter about disasters from journalist Colleen Hagerty. If you found this dispatch interesting, I hope you’ll subscribe!

In February, I received a 421-page paper in my inbox, detailing minute-by-minute the spread of the most destructive wildfire in modern California history. The meticulous research began as that fire—the Camp Fire—was still burning in the fall of 2018, and it has continued ever since, led by a team at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
This report, the result of thousands of hours and the sort of interagency coordination that requires an alphabet of acronyms, is only one fraction of the work this team is putting into understanding just what happened to make this fire was devastating—and how other communities can avoid a similar fate.
I profiled the efforts of these NIST researchers in one of my latest features for Sierra Magazine, focusing on their efforts to create a framework that will allow them to compare fire risk between communities. As I wrote in the article:
“The hope is to create a yardstick for comparison, explains Alexander Maranghides, a fire protection engineer with NIST. ‘In Florida, you design for a hurricane category,’ he says. ‘In Los Angeles, you have seismic requirements and you’re saying, ‘OK, I’m going to design to a 7.5 on the Richter scale,’ or whatever number you choose.’ 
Such measures can serve as a powerful mitigation tool, allowing officials to plan and design for the unique threats their communities face.”
Fire: How Does It Even Work? | Sierra Club
Since my article was published last week, the team at NIST informed me that this yardstick is another step closer to becoming a reality. On Monday, the agency announced their community wildfire hazard framework has been included in a proposed draft to update the California Fire Code.
“By specifying high-priority information for community leaders to collect and consolidate, the framework will serve as a tool for improving planning and emergency response,” the NIST release explains.  “If applied broadly, it would also help officials at the county and state level gain a better idea of which communities are most in need of support.”
The framework includes 23 factors that the team has identified as having a “notable influence” on wildfires, including weather patterns and a community’s evacuation capacity. By creating a map or other database system to track these various factors, officials can better identify the specific risks their community faces and have a common language communicate those challenges to other the agencies that come in to help in the case of a wildfire. Over time, as more areas adopt this framework, those datasets can facilitate more accurate comparisons between different locales. And, Maranghides told me in our interview, all of this can inform future policies, such as building codes in high-risk areas.
“It’s this quantification that will enable us to decide where we want to set the bar in terms of hardening the buildings and the parcels to withstand those exposures,” Maranghides explained.
I hope you’ll give my article a read to learn more about the NIST team’s research and findings (complete with some incredible images of ember experiments). I also wanted to use this opportunity to appeal to some of the researchers in my audience—if you’re doing work on disaster-related subjects, I would love to hear about it! I’m always looking to help translate disaster research to a broader audience and share how our policies and actions can shape the impacts of these events.
As always...
thank you for reading and subscribing to My World’s on Fire. If you want to take that support to the next level and get access to exclusive content, you can sign up for my Patreon.
It also means the world to me when you post about it on social media like Versha Sharma did:
Versha Sharma
I have to give credit to my friend @colleenhagerty, who has done an admirable job keeping up with the residents of Lake Charles, La as they deal with disaster after disaster. Many there haven’t recovered from Hurricane Laura, which hit this time last year
MWOF also got a cool shoutout in yesterday’s edition of The Daily Breather newsletter, which offers daily air quality updates personalized to your location, plus interesting facts, trivia, and tips. As we’ve seen this summer, wildfire smoke certainly makes its way around, so this free newsletter is a great resource for monitoring the AQI in your area.
Now, here’s a little something for reading to the end.
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