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Glenn McGillivray is the managing director of the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction

For the second time in about a year, multi-billion-dollar wildfires are turning California communities to ash as fast moving flames race through tinder-dry forests and grasslands and ultimately feast on unnatural fuels. The wildfires in California last year caused about US$14-billion in insured losses.

Unless we want more of the same in the years ahead, we need to better understand the issue of wildfire getting into communities. We can gain at least some improved understanding by looking at what was learned from the major urban conflagrations in history.

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In the distant past, several major cities have experienced large conflagrations caused by one thing or another, such as cows and earthquakes. Fires in London, New York, Toronto, Chicago and San Francisco led to many changes in how cities are designed, how buildings are constructed, and in fire education and safety.

These fires were likely largely viewed in technical terms and, thus, were seen as addressable, where measures could be put into place to prevent or, at the very least, reduce the risk of reoccurrence.

As a result, firewalls were placed within and between structures; openings were limited on the exposure sides of buildings; fire doors became common; buildings were outfitted with fire alarms, suppression equipment with dedicated water supplies and, from the late 19th century, sprinkler systems; less wood was used in construction; open flames were limited, and so on.

Parallel to these efforts came the rise of education programs to inform people about the risk of fire and actions they could take to limit ignitions and spread. Over time, both the frequency and severity of urban fires dropped precipitously, to the point where fires are no longer a major cause of death or the main cause of insured property damage in most industrialized countries.

But we have never really taken this approach with communities located close to forests and grasslands. Why?

First, wildfires are viewed as natural disasters, and there is a widespread view that nothing can be done – they occur at the whim of Mother Nature. The view that loss of life and property are inevitable when a hazard strikes leads to inaction when it comes to wildland fire. For some reason, we treat the prevention of wildfires differently than we treat the prevention of other fires. But, in the final analysis, fire is fire.

Second, people have a misconception about wildfires and nearby communities, believing that wildland fires roll through the forest, hit a built-up area and keep rolling. But what largely happens is that embers from the wildfire are blown far ahead of the fire front and ignite flammable materials located around structures.

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Once one realizes that wildfires are not juggernauts that roll through towns like steamrollers, and that structural ignitions from wildfire embers are preventable, programs can be put into place to address the issue of flammability of individual structures, subdivisions and entire communities.

One big problem is that we may be talking too much to the wrong folks about this dynamic; to wildland fire experts and not to structural fire experts, fire modellers and other urban fire experts.

Once a wildland fire gets into town, the fire stops being a forest fire and starts a new life as an urban fire, possibly becoming an urban conflagration or “firestorm” if enough structures are ignited. Once the fire hits town, it becomes a different fire, feeding on different fuels (such as structures and vehicles). A fire ecologist, for example, has no expertise in the mechanisms that lead to structural ignition and spread of fire in an urban setting.

We need to bring structural or urban fire departments, academics and other experts into the discussion and leverage their knowledge (of course, many are already involved in the discussion, but many are not). In Canada, we have to pull in such organizations as the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, the Aboriginal Firefighters Association of Canada and their provincial counterparts, as well as provincial firefighter associations.

We need to bring in such researchers as fire modellers, to better understand how fire grabs hold and spreads in urban areas (we know what causes structures to ignite, but need to do more to understand how entire subdivisions are lost) and the sequence of such spread.

We need to take the same approach with wildland fire in at-risk communities as we do with all other urban fires. This can only start by talking to the right people.

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