From spark to inferno: Wildland fire mitigation strategies

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As wildfire takes over the globe, WFCA Senior Policy Advisor Bob Roper navigates the complex terrain of wildland fire policy development and mitigation strategies

The world’s attention is riveted on the increasing threat posed by wildfires, a global issue that has been amplified exponentially by the spectre of climate change. Recent developments underscore the severity and global scale of this escalating crisis. From the vast wilderness of Canada to the diverse landscapes of Europe, the wildfire threat casts a long, ominous shadow.

In Canada, an unprecedented wildfire season has been unfolding, triggered by a heat dome that caused temperatures to soar to unheard-of levels. This extreme heatwave, a direct consequence of climate change, has ignited hundreds of wildfires across British Columbia, Alberta, and other provinces.

The fires have incinerated vast swaths of forests, destroyed properties, and claimed lives. Toxic smoke from these wildfires has not only choked Canadian cities but has travelled thousands of kilometres to reach as far as Europe, underscoring the transcontinental reach of this crisis.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Europe is grappling with its own wildfire challenges. A deadly heatwave, dubbed “Lucifer,” has been sweeping across the continent, triggering a spate of wildfires from Spain to Greece. Climate scientists are unambiguous about the role of climate change in these extreme weather events.

The continent is seeing its temperature records shattered, and the scorching heat has turned vast tracts of vegetation into tinderboxes ready to ignite. The wildfires in the Mediterranean, known for their holiday destinations, are also threatening lives, homes, and the region’s valuable tourism industry.

The intersection of climate change, extreme heat events, and wildfires has created an inferno of catastrophe. It paints a dystopian portrait of a future where uncontrollable wildfires could become an annual event, drastically impacting ecosystems, human health, and economies.

This harsh reality is also evident in the United States, which grapples with its own unique challenges. The interplay of climate change, land-use practices, and an increasingly complex electrical infrastructure has created a unique tinderbox for wildfires. A confluence of factors, including drought conditions, rising temperatures, and human activity, has created a perfect storm for the wildfires.

Mitigating this crisis calls for a global response, and importantly, expert insight and guidance. As we dive into this looming threat, we sought the expertise of someone deeply embedded in the heart of this issue – Bob Roper.

Roper, with a career spanning over 45 years in the fire service and wildland fire policy development, has worked in various roles from Ventura County Fire Department Fire Chief to State Forester for Nevada. Currently, he is the wildfire policy advisor for the Western Fire Chiefs Association, where he focuses his expertise on strategic planning and public policy related to Wildland Fire issues. In our conversation, Roper sheds light on the complexities of wildfire prevention, the role of electrical utility vendors, and his vision for the future of wildfire mitigation.

As our understanding of the complexities deepens, it underscores the pressing need for strategic responses to manage and navigate this escalating threat. We sat down with Roper to these explore challenges in depth, providing insight into the complexities of wildfire prevention, the role of electrical utility vendors, and his vision for the future of wildfire mitigation.

What drove your decision to focus specifically on wildland fire policy issues?

Coming up through the Ventura County Fire Department, I had the pleasure to work with some of the founding members of FIRESCOPE. FIRESCOPE was created in the early 70’s to address issues involving common operational procedures and organization of emergency incidents. Thus, the Incident Command System (ICS) was born. My work experience focused on wildfires as I found that if an agency can command a dynamic moving wildfire incident, that agency can successfully handle most any other type of emergency incident.

I soon became involved in local wildfire policy development which dictated state policy coordination. This compounded and I soon became involved in the International Association of Fire Chiefs’ Wildland Fire Policy Committee, which created the opportunity to evolve into national policy interaction. It was through these collective experiences that I found the integral nature of how policies at all levels must work up and down for success.

How have you seen the strategies for handling wildfires evolve, especially with the advancements in technology?

Technology and procedural changes always enhance our overall success, but the real secret to success is getting the right players to the table to discuss and create good policy. These players need to understand all perspectives and remove the barriers to success while focusing on the goals.

We have seen top-down policy at all levels get enacted, but the degree of success actually lies with the performance of the policy at the field level. We also cannot rely on policy being adopted without proper education and marketing of consequence management. So, technology is not the be all end all – it becomes the supporting tool to make policies successful.

Can you discuss challenges and achievements in wildland fire policies across local, state, and federal levels?

When addressing the local, state, and federal policy levels, it really boils down to a matter of perspective. Example, Ventura County has a model Hazard Reduction program that builds defensible space. Its success rate speaks volumes, but it was built on local community relationships and hard data to gain the needed political support.

This program became a model for CA, but the enforcement program has not gained the same success rate. This is because of the exponential nature of education and outreach needed to have the same success as Ventura County did.

This situation is further exacerbated at the federal level when you do not have the same community bonds that the local level has. This is why the wildfire problem cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. Success relies on a common vision and/or an enforcement program to force compliance rather than rely on intrinsic values.

How do electrical utility vendors’ transmission systems contribute to wildfire ignitions, and how significant is this issue?

Utility systems are an essential part of our daily lives, but everything needs to be maintained. These systems can produce trouble faults from arcing, heat exposures and critical failures due to age, accidents (traffic accidents) and acts of nature (trees into lines and animal ground faults). Serious consideration has been made to evaluate the cost of undergrounding the transmission and distribution systems, but that mitigation option can be cost prohibitive.

This becomes a conundrum where we ask: “What is the financial pain tolerance in utility bills to upgrade systems vs. what are acceptable wildfire losses?” It’s interesting that electrical utility caused wildfires only account for 7-10% of all wildfires. It’s just that many of the high-profile wildfires recently have been attributed to electrical utility ignitions.

What are some of the potential pitfalls of vendors being left in charge of their own system monitoring?

It’s always best to have all parties practice full transparency, so public trust is maintained. We must recognise that technology isn’t foolproof, leading to false positive trouble reports that can undermine our trust in it. However, as these systems improve over time and our confidence grows, this creates a corresponding dependence on them.

Can you explain how a state warning control centre might utilise technology to monitor these transmission systems more effectively?

By a state warning centre or equivalent having this type of data, utility companies can ensure that they have the best data available to mitigate potential ignition starts. This type of data also provides an overwatch display for the respective governing entity. The real secret in this type of data is the elimination of false positives, so there is a high degree of reliability for response.

How might such monitoring help in pre-positioning emergency resources before adverse wildfire weather conditions are present?

In many cases today, when actual or anticipated incidents occur, resources are staged or prepositioned on a regional basis. This type of reliable data can locate scarce resources to a latitude/longitude location to verify a trouble spot or be in the immediate area pending a utility response. If an ignition does occur, hopefully it can be controlled much faster than from a regional response location.

What are some strategies or methods you recommend for mitigating the risk of wildfires in areas with high-density electrical utility infrastructures?

It starts with a wildfire mitigation plan. These plans detail probable areas, control actions and updates to the infrastructure. Maintenance of the infrastructure is key and improves the system’s performance while reducing liabilities.

Identifying the probable areas of ignition also allows a utility to consider how they might want to restructure grids to lessen the impact of a Public Safety Power Shutoff (PSPS). Also, many utilities have created their own response capabilities ranging from watch patrols to firefighting resources. In addition to these steps, I strongly urge utilities and their respective fire response agencies to enhance their relationships.

What is your vision for the future of wildland fire prevention?

We are currently witnessing an increase in wildfires due primarily to extreme wind conditions. We are also seeing utilities doing an amazing amount of infrastructure upgrades. My vision is that we will see the utility caused wildfire data flip-flop as utility infrastructure improvements become reality.

How can we better educate the public and private sectors about these issues, and what role can they play in wildfire prevention?

We must provide an on-going education message that the wildfire challenges are not one entity’s issue, it is the collective challenge to government, private sector, and the public at all levels. We need to form a common bond that enables all of us to focus on the right solutions for our communities.

That being said, there are general guidelines that each community can use to address their specific challenges. We also need to understand that wildfires have been part of our ecosystems for centuries and we must learn to live with wildfires as part of our culture today and into the future.

This exclusive article was originally published in the September 2023 issue of International Fire & Safety Journal. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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