Lessons learned from urban wildfire

12:29 AM, Jun 13, 2013   |    comments
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DENVER - Gregory Simon has been studying urban wildfires for the last six years and says the increasing number of homes being destroyed is a result of several factors.

As housing developments are being built in areas prone to wildfires it is inevitable that homes will be lost and damaged. He also believes the number of wildfires is increasing in the west as a result of increasingly arid conditions. Many homes being built in fire prone areas are not always constructed with fire retardant materials.

"The homes themselves are actually making the areas more vulnerable. The homes themselves are actually adding to the fuel load and making them prone to fires," says Simon, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Denver.

Simon studied the Waldo Canyon fire and the aftermath of it. He has also studied several large fires in California. What he has found is the random path of destruction these fires follow.

"Interestingly you'd have homes that, you'd have entire blocks that were burned and then you'd have two homes sitting there seemingly untouched, or you'd have one side of the street burned and the other side not burned, or you have homes burned but the trees around them are not burned," Simon said.

He says the micro climate created by the fires is responsible for the unpredictable movement of fire in small areas. Large wildfires create their own weather and as a result can move in random patterns and produce random damage.

"On a large type of landscape scale I think we can sort of predict where they're going to go, but at a micro level, I mean whether my home burns or my neighbor's home burns is almost impossible to predict" Simon said.

He says the other significant factor that determines whether a home burns is how it is built.

"It does matter. I mean how a home is built does matter. There are certain types of instances where we've seen embers have landed on a home and the house went up in flames and that type of ember or a series of embers would have landed on a different home and not ignited that home," Simon said.

He says that homes built with fire retardant materials are far more likely to survive a fire or at least slow the fire and give firefighters a chance to save the structure.

Recent urban wildfires have provided lessons that could help limit the damage and injuries in the future.

"I think the biggest lesson we can learn is to be much more cautious in where we put new housing developments and if we do put housing developments in fire prone areas, we use the right building materials," Simon said.

He adds that vegetation mitigation around homes is also important, but there is another big safety concern that he has seen from his studies. Many developments in fire prone areas are built with cul-de-sacs instead of through streets. In the event of a fire or another emergency, a cul-de-sac only provides only one escape route.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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