The first line of defence against wildfire

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Gabriel Reza discusses the crucial role of community and infrastructure in the face of growing wildfire threats

With wildfires intensifying their frequency and ferocity, communities globally are grappling with the realities of evacuation, loss, and recovery.

However, proactive measures, from community education to home hardening, offer a beacon of hope.

IFSJ Editor Iain Hoey sat down with Gabriel Reza, an expert in the field, to shed light on the techniques used by professionals to combat this escalating hazard and share strategies that individuals and communities can employ to enhance their safety.

Can you tell me about yourself and your background?

I’ve been with the Glendale Fire Department for about 17 years, serving a city of roughly 200,000 within Los Angeles County, California.

I hold the title of Senior Environmental Safety Specialist.

This role is versatile in our department; one day I might be reviewing plans at the front desk, the next I could be out on a construction inspection or at a wildfire scene.

It’s a multi-functional title unique to our area.

During my time with Glendale Fire, I’ve served on numerous committees spanning both fire and building safety.

I firmly believe these professions should communicate regularly, as they share the common goal of ensuring safety.

I’ve also been the past president of the Southern California Fire Prevention Officers and am currently the Chair of the International Code Council, LA Basin chapter, Fire Life Safety committee.

Additionally, I participate in Wildland Fire Committees and the NFPA Committee.

What’s the significance of wildfire prevention in the current global climate?

Over the last decade, we’ve amassed significant data on wildland fire cycles.

Our objective is to break these cycles using active management in fire-prone areas.

This includes thoughtful planning to avoid placing homes and cities in danger zones.

We aim to predict the trajectories and spread of fires to ensure safety.

The State Fire Marshal’s office in California is extensively processing data to understand wildfire patterns.

The main importance lies in understanding the cycle, and then mitigating risks through vegetation management, home hardening, etc.

How has wildfire prevention and management changed in the past decade?

While wildfires are a natural occurrence with a history spanning centuries, the difference today lies in the legislation and policies.

Compared to the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, we now see unprecedented levels of legislative activity around wildfires.

Every three years, the US revises building and fire codes through national discussions.

Wildfire-related topics have now surged to the forefront of these discussions, affecting a range of codes from mechanical to plumbing.

Over the past decade, with the influx of data and legislation, there’s been a shift from national to state to local levels in ensuring homes are fire-resistant, a trend likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

What strategies effectively create defensible spaces around homes and communities?

Traditionally, a defensible space is maintained up to 100 feet around a property.

The first 30 feet is the most critical, emphasising proper brush clearance and yard maintenance.

Beyond those 30 feet, the focus shifts to pruning larger trees and shrubs.

During our inspections in the city and neighbouring counties, we’ve noticed the significance of this initial 30 feet.

It’s essential to be conscious of the vegetation type near your home, as well as any items or structures, like trash bins or sheds, which might increase fire risk.

There’s upcoming California legislation introducing a “zone zero,” targeting plants directly against homes that pose high fire threats.

This could result in mandatory removal of certain plants, underscoring the state’s focus on minimising fire hazards.

How is technology being used in wildfire prevention and management? Can you discuss any advancements?

Technological advancements have played a pivotal role in bolstering wildfire prevention and management efforts in recent years.

One such improvement is in our Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

This system’s ability to intricately map terrains aids in strategising preventive measures.

As cities and insurance companies leverage this data, it not only allows for a more proactive approach but also assists in forecasting fire patterns based on historical data.

Drones, too, have revolutionised our approach, particularly in the realm of enforcement and inspection.

Previously inaccessible or hard-to-reach areas are now within our grasp.

These devices provide us with real-time imagery and videos, enabling local authorities to comprehensively assess regions for potential hazards or breaches in safety protocols.

This has not only optimised the inspection process but has also been instrumental in formulating preventive strategies.

The exciting frontier, however, lies in the realm of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Collaborative projects in California are now harnessing AI to develop sophisticated algorithms.

These algorithms aim to predict the onset of fires and their subsequent spread, taking into account an array of variables from wind patterns to topography.

Given the unpredictable nature of fires, having an AI system that can analyse vast amounts of data, including offshore wind flows or ocean breezes, marks a significant leap in pre-emptive fire management.

Additionally, California’s initiative to install cameras in the most fire-prone areas provides a continuous stream of data.

When this real-time data is processed by AI, it can highlight potential high-risk zones, offering an alert system to Fire Authorities even before a fire might break out.

This combination of AI and real-time monitoring ensures that responses are quicker, and preventive measures are more data-driven than ever.

Could you clarify the concept of home hardening and its importance in wildfire prevention?

Home hardening refers to the use of specific building materials and techniques that reduce the chances of a home igniting during a wildfire.

It doesn’t necessarily mean a complete overhaul of your home; instead, incremental changes can make a significant difference.

For instance, shifting to metal or non-combustible clay roofs, or various fire-resistant tiles, can offer considerable protection.

Similarly, opting for metal gutters with shields prevents the accumulation of flammable debris, while switching to dual-pane windows can guard against radiant heat, which has been known to pass through older, single-pane windows, causing interior fires.

In California, you can even get professionals to assess your home’s vulnerability to fire.

The objective is to make your home as fire-resistant as possible, step by step.

How vital is community education in wildfire prevention?

Public awareness is crucial, and unfortunately, for many, wildfires aren’t on their radar until they experience one first hand.

Early education, starting with schools, is pivotal.

Our outreach has evolved from merely teaching children to dial 911, to now informing them about evacuation procedures and emergency preparedness.

Engaging not only with schools but also communities and homeowners’ associations ensures everyone understands the risks and precautions.

When sharing information, we aim for simplicity and clarity.

Avoiding technical jargon and providing easy-to-understand guidance ensures everyone can actively participate in safeguarding their homes and neighbourhoods.

How can communities prepare for wildfire season?

I’d strongly recommend visiting your local fire station. Check if your city or county has an emergency mass notification system.

Many cities are now adopting such systems that alert residents through emails, text messages, or voice-recorded phone calls about incidents in their vicinity.

Additionally, check if there are any committees or training sessions in place for neighbourhood evacuations.

While many departments conduct evacuation drills, often, the notifications go unnoticed in mailed flyers.

Active participation in these drills may not always be high, but they are available in several places.

My primary suggestion would be to get in touch with your local fire department or city administration.

They can provide insights into available programs, especially since there’s an increasing focus, backed by grant funds, on public education, community outreach, and mass evacuation.

What should be prioritised when it comes to wildfire prevention?

The enforcement and awareness of proper vegetation management are paramount.

While the topic of enforcement can be sensitive, there are times when legal interventions become necessary to clear hazardous vegetation from private properties.

If homeowners don’t undertake the necessary precautions, fire departments might be compelled to intervene directly, using legal avenues if required, to manage the vegetation.

While our aim is always increased awareness, for authorities, a lot rests on the enforcement process.

Some fire departments may hesitate to strictly enforce these measures, but I believe it’s essential.

If we don’t address the risk in our most vulnerable regions, especially with habitual offenders, we are potentially inviting danger.

Addressing these issues proactively is crucial for everyone’s safety.

This 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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