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Waldo Canyon Fire spreads in the scientific community

Colorado Springs' burn site attracts National Institute of Standards and Technology, others


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Alexander Maranghides uses the word "complex" a lot. A fire protection engineer with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, he goes deep into the weeds, trying to find ways to reduce structure losses and save lives in wildland fires.

And for the next two years, the Waldo Canyon Fire burn site will be one of his laboratories.

Maranghides spent his February here, gathering data and interviewing some 40 firefighters. He'll be back several times as he and other scientists, with help from the U.S. Forest Service, investigate what burned, when, how badly and why, to guide preventive measures as well as aid firefighting efforts.

Colorado Springs Fire Marshal Brett Lacey calls this work of "gigantic value" in determining how to prepare for the worst, and respond when it happens.

"I think they're going to be able to grow a tool to the point it's going to give us tremendously more accurate information than we have right now," he says. But Lacey says the city already is light years ahead of other cities in adopting fire-resistant building codes and reducing fire risk, one reason it was chosen for study.

Known unknowns

This effort was instigated by Colorado's U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, who last October called for the Department of Agriculture (which houses the Forest Service) to team with other agencies, including the Department of Commerce's NIST, to "examine the factors that led to the level of intensity and damage [from Colorado's wildland fires], and learn what we can do to reduce future risks."

Maranghides says Colorado Springs is a good site for in-depth studies, because it's progressive in its mitigation efforts, put in place a dozen years ago. In addition, the city agreed to allow researchers to interview firefighters to help reconstruct the fire.

But sealing the deal was the city's existing three-dimensional imaging of the Mountain Shadows area, where the Waldo destroyed 345 homes and killed an elderly couple last June 26. Gathered to serve the needs of city information technology, Springs Utilities, D-911 and El Paso County, LIDaR (light detection and ranging) imaging was done from an aircraft and measures the footprint and scale of trees, homes, vehicles, decks, shrubs and topographical contours.

With imaging like that, Maranghides and his team can know what existed before fire swept into the city. And no detail is too small; in California in 2007, NIST investigators examined burn patterns found on golf balls partially embedded in the ground to determine direction of the fire front.

What Maranghides wants are "known uncertainties" — scientist-speak for "the odds" — upon which fire commanders can rely in making deployment decisions. "It's not critical you have the answer 100 percent right all the time," he says. "You just need to know how much you can trust it."

For example, say modeling predicts that buffalo grass burns at 4 meters per second. Researchers then gather data during prescribed burns and other fires, and apply those and other factors in a computer model; at the end, they might conclude that in a buffalo grass fire, this rate is accurate 95 percent of the time. Maranghides envisions NIST's research leading to a playbook of sorts for commanders to consult to gauge how fast and where a fire will spread in making evacuation and firefighting decisions.

Ember zones

NIST's work also could change construction within the wildland urban interface. "Think of everything that burns — trees, shrubs, decks, homes, cars — what embers and fire they're generating, and what it takes all of this to ignite," Maranghides explains. Once that is better understood, homes at the most risk could be retrofitted with resistant materials, and new homes could be constructed differently.

To that end, researchers interview first responders to learn how specific houses caught fire. Was it radiant heat from the house next door, or flying embers? Why did some things ignite and others didn't? Did firefighting efforts save this or that home? Or could its survival stem from building materials?

These answers are crucial to establish "heat flux," the temperature at which an object burns, and "exposure scale," the measure of the likelihood a structure will burn given its proximity in a subdivision and to vegetation and other structures.

"We are putting together tools to help us measure the flux and exposure, so we can understand the exposure and then link the exposure to [building] codes and standards," he says. NIST's research could also guide land-use planning decisions based on levels of risk.

"We can create different zones of fire and ember," Maranghides says. "If you're going to be in ember exposure zone 3 [severe risk, close to the wildlands], you [would] have to build to withstand that exposure." Those types of ratings could lead developers to avoid building in the riskiest spots, and could motivate insurance companies to set premiums based on zones, he says.

"That's what the [insurance] industry is trying to do, but without that yardstick [of exposure and flux ratings], it has been very difficult," Maranghides says.

A model for others

This isn't the first time Colorado Springs has attracted attention for its wildland program. Officials from Germany, Australia, New Zealand and California have contacted the city in years past.

Since 2003, the Fire Department has mitigated 5,824 acres in the city, about 20 percent of the 28,800 acres located within the wildland urban interface, through its work with nearly 100 homeowner associations and neighborhood groups, Lacey says.

Since the fire-resistant roofing ordinance was adopted about a decade ago, 68,915 homeowners have replaced their shake-shingle roofs or obtained roofing permits to do so, he reports. More recently, nine officials from a Russian fire agency came to observe the city's mitigation efforts — arriving, ironically, just as Waldo broke out.

Lacey says the vast majority of Mountain Shadows homes ignited from flying embers, which has already triggered building code changes to require attic screens, as well as more fire-resistant materials. He anticipates that NIST's work will reinforce the city is on the right path, and help advance firefighting and mitigation worldwide.

But a lot of work lies ahead. As Maranghides says, "this field is really at its technical infancy."


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