A Proactive Approach to Metropolitan Wildfire Risk 1

By Chris Barney

From the PBI Performance Products, Inc. e-Newsletter, sponsored by

Each summer, the nation's attention is drawn to the media's coverage of large wildfires burning around the United States. Images of these fires burning through forests and rural subdivisions remind citizens and firefighters of the threat wildfire can pose to our communities around the country.

Often the impression is that wildfires destroy structures located only in the high fire-prone areas of our country, such as southern California or the Southwest, where the homes and the forest meet. This area, called the urban interface, where the undeveloped forests and grasslands meet the built environment, is without a doubt the most challenging area to defend for a wildland firefighter. But the same issues are present in locations we often don't associate with wildfires. Large metropolitan cities, with their landscapes dominated by neighborhoods and commercial buildings, are often overlooked as sites for wildfires.

In these urban environments, structure fires are still the most prominent fire threat. Small, creeping grassfires are easily dealt with and may be the only wildland-type fire some urban departments experience. A different perspective on wildfires and the term "urban interface" could broaden the understanding of the potential wildfire threats facing our urban communities and the approach to dealing with them.

Away from the paved landscapes that dominate the urban core of most large cities, a patchwork of greenspaces, interwoven among homes and neighborhood businesses, exists throughout our cities. These spaces are created by city planners as parks or to create texture within our community by occupying the terrain less desirable for development.

In size, these areas may not compare with the chaparral vegetation of Southern California or the ponderosa pine fuels of the South Dakota Black Hills that burn frequently. However, the speed and the intensity with which these city spaces can burn could be similar to the more traditional wildland fires.. When exposed to the right weather conditions, a slope containing dry, flashy vegetation can threaten the surrounding structures more than we realize.

In 2001, the Portland, Oregon, experienced just such a fire in its urban wildfire interface. The Willamette Bluff Fire consumed a sizeable green space and threatened more homes than any other wildfire the fire department that occurredf in its 125-year history. Portland Fire & Rescue persevered in the face of an incident it was ill-prepared for and suppressed the fire without the fire destroying any structures. That fire led to the city agency's adopting a cooperative, proactive approach to reduce the risks of wildfires.

Willamette Bluff Fire

During 2001, the weather throughout Washington and Oregon (U.S. Forest Service Region 6) was hot and dry. Low-fuel moistures and relative humidities helped to create conditions that would spawn 10 separate wildfires in the region, each 1,000 acres or more, including the Virginia Lake Complex, the Lakeview Complex, and The 30 Mile Fires between July and September.

On August 8, 2001, just before six in the evening, Portland Fire Dispatch tapped out Box Alarm 2218 for reports of flames coming from Waud's Bluff, a residential overlook to the Willamette River and downtown containing large areas of invasive vegetation (Photo 1). Soon multiple calls were coming in for what turned out to be a brushfire five miles long, along the base of a bluff. Investigators later theorized that a passing train with faulty brakes ignited the dry vegetation along its tracks at the base of the bluff.

First-arriving companies reported fires in multiple locations along the bluff, rapidly spreading up a hillside less than 200 feet from bottom to top. Command quickly called additional alarms after companies began reporting that numerous structures were threatened by fire. The ensuing five-alarm fire's rapid spread forced Command to rely heavily on individual company officers' own tactical decisions. Despite little experience with wildfire structure protection, Portland Fire & Rescue was fortunate the fire didn't destroy any structures and that no firefighters or civilians were injured.

After the Bluff Fire, the city was awakened to the threat wildfires can pose within a metropolitan city. A critical eye was turned toward the many urban parks and vegetation pockets within the city. What threat did these areas pose to the surrounding communities? For a fire department used to dealing with urban structure fires, what would the best approach be to prepare adequately for wildfires? Coupled with the resulting erosion-control issues from the fire, all the city bureaus were galvanized to find a proactive approach to preventing a future wildfire.

Read Part 2.

Chris Barney started with Portland (OR) Fire & Rescue in 2003; he is a firefighter in Engine/Squad-24. Before that, he worked for South Metro (CO) Fire & Rescue and throughout the Rocky Mountain Region as a wildland firefighter.

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