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Meeting Report

On Tuesday September 30, the BC chapter was graced with the presence of speaker Alexander Maranghides from NIST, and special visitor Vyto Babrauskas- formerly of NIST- who accompanied him from Seattle. The presentation drew many members, including representatives from the insurance community. A total of 35 members attended the meeting in the False Creek Yacht Club.

The topic of the evening was the effect of forest fires on fire risk in communities and ongoing research that NIST is engaged in. The aim is to develop a sound methodology for assessing and classifying wildfires. Presenting the results of his recent SFPE article, speaker Alexander presented an exciting new approach to assessing the wild fire risk in communities. NIST’s method takes the various parameters that determine fire spread in wild fire situations - such as topography, ground cover, separation, construction etc. and assigns it a relative index. Starting with a video of fire in an urban environment, Mr. Maranghides demonstrated that, while fire modelling of structural fires is reasonably well developed, by contrast a comparative method of modelling wildfires is in its infancy. Alexander described US attempts to legislate means to control forest fires in 1976.
While there was good success this still remains a growing problem. Mr. Maranghides indicates that the actual number of wild fire losses is still unknown.

Using the examples of the Witch/Guejito fire, Waldo Colorado, and Texas wildfires, Alexander showed that this is a risk that is increasingly straddling the boundary between urban and wild land fires and that perhaps most frighteningly, the current system- in firefighting terms- is not geared to respond.
Stating that there is an increased risk due to continued development in the wild land/ urban interface, Mr. Maranghides expressed that increasing fuel build up and climate change are exacerbating the risk. We as a professional community urgently need to examine building exposures in the context of the wild land/ urban interface. This will require us to harness the science underpinning codes and standards and material properties and use this to develop a new engineering approach to quantify the impact of wild land fires on construction.
Mr. Maranghides stressed that like indoor building fires, this is an engineering and response problem - a building owner simply cannot develop better materials or influence the response. We will need a different response mindset: with different timelines, and with different scales. In order to address the risk, we first need to understand the fire. In this regards, NIST has  established an extensive network of partners to collect data and reconstruct fire events. Showing a sampling of the information and date available, Alexander showed that we need a measuring  stick to make sense of the information, or the big picture is lost in the noise.

At this stage, NIST is involved in developing that measuring stick for understanding. Alexander also showed some data from NIST has Research burns with the following objectives to:
1. Develop a methodology
2. Test that methodology on real fires
Mr. Maranghides showed us examples of NIST’s work in developing an exposure scale. His work suggests that an ember flux measurement system to quantify wild land fires may be the key. 

Mr. Maranghides has given us a glimpse of the thrust and direction of NIST research and that fires at the wild and/urban interface are of increasing importance. Guidance needs to be at a community level and not solely at an individual parcel level, and that fire science can provide the key to understanding and addressing these challenging fires. There is a multiplicative effect in the early stages of wild land fires: those homes lost in the early stages add to the fire. The fire itself may be quick but once it gets into the homes then it can last hours. These types of fires result in losses that are staggering in short periods. In some cases the rate of structural losses has been calculated at one 1 home a minute.

These losses can be curtailed with appropriate engineering and NIST has taken the first step of developing an appropriate hazard scale to assess the fires and eventually replicate their behaviour.