Fire & Life Safety (Focus On Preparation and Prevention)

Wildfire Risk

In many parts of the country our campuses are located in the foothills of majestic mountains and, as we have seen most recently in California, our schools are also located in the path of wildfires. For many centuries wildfires had a natural cycle, clearing debris from the forest floor. With a change in policy to aggressively fight manmade wildfires we have inadvertently added to the fuel load of the forests on or near our campuses. The results of the added fuel load are mega-fires that are burning hotter, bigger, and faster than ever. Because of the intensity of the fires we see today, campuses must consider how to create defensible spaces around the infrastructure of utilities, structures, and land uses they have in the urban-wildland interface.

Fire damage statistics prove that locations that take into account proactive approaches to mitigate wildfire damage see lower losses than locations that don’t. In 2013 a fire in Colorado’s Black Forest saw 61 out of 67 structures lost in the fire while a nearby development with robust wildfire risk reduction planning lost only four structures.

Fire risk reduction for our campuses should include:

• Specifying materials and construction methods to reduce risk of ignition. Choice of materials for structures in the urban-wildland interface zone should consider the combustible characteristics of the material. Materials should be selected that have the lowest possibility of catching fire. Most reputable manufacturers will submit their products to UL for testing and classification related to their combustibility. Designers should specify materials that are listed as non-combustible. I would suggest project managers select design firms that have past experience designing structures in this unique environment.

In addition to material selection, contractors should discuss their construction plan. Project managers should demand that the general contractor and all sub-contractors submit plans for reducing the risk of fire during construction. Once plans are submitted, review with local fire officials for comment or, if they are not available, seek input from fire inspectors with experience in fire risk reduction in the urban-wildland interface.

• Separating structures by a minimum of 30 feet. Creating larger distances between structures can reduce fire spread. A brief search of fires that spread from one structure to another will demonstrate the impacts of radiant heat. Creating distances reduces the radiant heat threat.

• Extending water supplies for fire departments well past structures and to a firebreak in the landscape. Investing in the installation of water supplies that extend past structures and up to firebreaks will allow for quicker fire suppression efforts. One campus invested in dry supply lines that resulted in stopping a wildfire before it could destroy a Natural History museum. It is also necessary to invite local fire department crews to tour locations when you install this infrastructure. They need to exercise the lines and valves and understand what the limitations (if any) are of this unusual setup.

• Planning open space and recreational trails in campus gardens that create firebreaks and provide access paths suitable for fire vehicle passage. Fire department risk reduction specialists are unanimous in their call for the creation of firebreaks to separate developed areas from natural spaces. They will also champion your efforts to create pathways that are wide enough for local fire vehicles and that are created with materials that can support the weight of suppression equipment.

• Maintenance programs to keep vegetation from overgrowing fire breaks. A tour of several campuses located in the foothills of mountains around their campus showed a clear need to keep vegetation cleared from buildings and from overtaking established firebreaks. Planners and landscape architects should design grounds that have a minimum of 50 feet of space around structures or other significant areas.

• Strict enforcement of policies prohibiting use of open flame and other activities that can start fire. A careful review of uses permitted in the urban-wildland zone must be undertaken on a regular basis. Concerts, special events (large or small), as well as class-based activities must be weighed against the risk of fire during all seasons. What may be accepted in the spring while land and vegetation is still moist may not be acceptable during the summer when all moisture is gone.

These are just a few tips. Consult state fire marshal offices for guidance specific to your area or reach out to the many fire safety consultants that can help you navigate your options.

This article originally appeared in the College Planning & Management February 2018 issue of Spaces4Learning.

About the Author

Mike Halligan is the President of Higher Education Safety, a consulting group specializing in fire prevention program audits, strategic planning, training and education programs and third party plan review and occupancy inspections. He retired after twenty six years as the Associate Director of Environmental Health and Safety and Emergency Management at the University of Utah. He frequently speaks and is a recognized expert on residence hall/student housing fire safety and large scale special event planning. He also works with corporate clients to integrate products into the campus environment that promote safety and security.