Fire departments cannot prevent "inevitable" blazes started by lightning strikes, arson attacks or human carelessness, but they can work with community stakeholders to develop a fire-mitigation plan that will reduce the risks and better position departments to respond should a wildland-urban interface (WUI) fire occur, said Bruce Woods, department head and chief of the Texas Forest Service.
Having such a plan is needed, because inexorably urban sprawl means the amount of area identified as wildland-urban interface (WUI) is increasing — in Florida, WUI areas account for 19% of the total land mass, Woods said. As a result, the potential for WUI fires is growing across the country.
Fire-mitigation plans should include all of the local, state and federal stakeholders, including the state department of natural resources, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Woods said. However, he cautioned that departments be thorough when identifying stakeholders, because it can be easy to leave a vital agency out of the loop.
"Federal agencies exist in different places that are surprising," Woods said. "For instance, in San Antonio, there are historical Spanish mission churches that fall under the U.S. Parks [Service], which is part of the Bureau of Land Management, which is part of the Department of the Interior."
Perhaps the most important stakeholders are those who reside in communities that exist within a wildland-urban interface, as it will be important to get them onboard the effort to reduce risks, particularly the amount of flora that fuels wildfires. An example can be found in the city of Dallas, according to Woods.
"People really value trees there," he said. "A lot of people think that if you cut down a tree, you destroy nature."
But, by getting the community to understand the dangers of excessive vegetation in the wrong places, fire-department officials were able to muster the support needed to convince Dallas officials that the city's tree-trimming ordinance was too restrictive.
"You want to do things at the grassroots level," Woods said.
Geographic-information-system (GIS) and mapping technologies are quite useful when developing a risk-assessment analysis, according to Woods. Information can be plotted that indicates the areas of greatest risk and identifies the properties that are defensible and those that are not. That, in turn, helps departments determine in advance where they will deploy resources and how they are going to get people out of harm's way.
"When you know where things are likely to occur, you can take action," Woods said.
Woods added that this information that should be shared with the community.
"It's good for citizens to have this data," he said. "When they do, they start calling and asking, 'What should I do?' It gives departments an opportunity to give them advice."