ICLR investigates resilience of some homes in Fort McMurray

0 May 27, 2016 at 2:24 pm by

ICLR has been successful in gaining official authorization to allow a noted wildfire researcher behind police cordons to investigate the resilience to wildfire of certain homes in Fort McMurray, Alberta.

The devastated neighbourhood of Abasand is shown in Fort McMurray, Alta., on Friday, May 13, 2016. A wildfire left a swath of destruction last week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

The devastated neighbourhood of Abasand is shown in Fort McMurray, Alta., on Friday, May 13, 2016. A wildfire left a swath of destruction last week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Alan Westhaver is looking into the reasons why clusters of houses were left standing in areas that were otherwise decimated by fire, and is the only insurance industry-related researcher that has been allowed unfettered access to the evacuated city.

Westhaver’s findings will be used to catalogue the key features of homes and properties that can reduce the risk of fire taking hold, allowing building code officials, homebuilders, insurers, homeowners and others to ensure that these features are included in rebuilds/new homes and in the maintenance practices of existing homes going forward. The results will also be used to corroborate the mounting evidence of the effectiveness of FireSmart as the primary wildfire mitigation program in Canada.

Westhaver got settled into Fort McMurray on Friday, May 20 after spending close to two hours at the main checkpoint undergoing a medical examination and being fitted with a mandatory respirator. He is set to complete his data gathering and other research on May 27 or 28.

Westhaver is Principal of ForestWise Environmental Consulting Ltd. of Fernie, B.C. He recently retired after 34 years of service to Parks Canada, 27 of them as a senior wildland fire manager.  Westhaver authored the 2015 ICLR research paper Risk reduction status of homes reconstructed following wildfire disasters in Canada wherein he answered the research question: To what degree have homeowners actually adopted and implemented FireSmart measures to mitigate the risk of future wildfire losses? Westhaver assessed the current wildfire hazard at 445 homes rebuilt after wildfires in Kelowna, B.C. in 2003 and Slave Lake, Alberta in 2011 and compared his observations against recommended FireSmart guidelines. ICLR believes that it was the first study of its kind conducted anywhere in the world.

Westhaver’s findings in Fort McMurray will build on this important research and add to what already likely is the largest research database of homes lost to wildfire anywhere in the world.

While considering the main query “Why did some structures survive (i.e. fail to ignite and burn)?” Westhaver will be looking at several specific questions, including:

1. To what extent were unburned homes compliant with recommended FireSmart guidelines?

2. What kind of fire activity occurred on the property surrounding homes that did not ignite and burn (i.e. within the home ignition zone)?

3. Is there evidence that burned homes adjacent to unburned homes, but subject to similar wildland fire behavior and ignition factors, were less compliant with recommended FireSmart guidelines than their unburned neighbours?

4. Based on residual evidence, what kind of ‘fire pathways’ are evident with regard to homes that burned at the ‘front row’ (i.e. those homes located directly adjacent to, and downwind of, burnt forested areas) of the wildland/urban interface?

5. Is there evidence to indicate that some types of vegetation (e.g. species, life forms, surface, ladder, crown, or landscaping ground covers) were more significant risk factors than others?

6. Is there evidence to show that homes which ignited and burned were more vulnerable than the surrounding vegetation? (i.e. that building materials or miscellaneous combustibles were the key vulnerability).

7. What were the relative characteristics and importance of structural, vegetation, and infrastructure hazard factors with regards to homes that survived? And to adjacent homes that ignited and burned?

Westhaver Fort Mack

Wildfire researcher Alan Westhaver

To best answer these questions, Westhaver is examining houses that are located in areas where they were potentially exposed only to ignition factors emanating from the wildfire itself, such as radiant heat, convective flames, and embers; and not to confounding ignition factors related to multiple, surrounding structural fires (i.e. structure to structure spread of fire). The investigation will, therefore, focus on homes located downwind of, and on the fringe of forest/brush areas that burned, or on homes that survived in other locations. Westhaver noted in his research methodology that “…these situations would occur in the ‘front row’ of adjacent forest areas, although it is quite conceivable that several rows of fire-resistant homes could occur before the fire becomes established as an urban conflagration.”

He commented that paired situations, where burned and unburned homes exist side-by-side, would be ideal situations for study.

Westhaver noted that while satellite imagery would be helpful in zeroing in on general areas, it would likely not be detailed enough to reveal the micro-level details required to determine with a reasonable degree of confidence whether or not recommended FireSmart guidelines had been implemented.

Westhaver modified the data collection format he utilized successfully for the Slave Lake/Kelowna study in order to incorporate additional parameters and data fields required to answer the research questions listed above.

The end result of this important research will be a paper summarizing Westhaver’s findings and making key recommendations centring around the reconstruction of homes in Fort McMurray, and the construction, landscaping and maintenance of all homes – new and existing – in the Wildland Urban Interface.

ICLR plans to publish this paper in a timely fashion so that it may inform discussions into rebuilding the city of Fort McMurray.

Stay tuned.

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