Face to Interface

Exploring America’s changing WUI

By Cindy Devone-Pacheco and Dan Bailey
Published Thursday, October 1, 2009 | From the October 2009 Issue of FireRescue

The wildland/urban interface (WUI) is in a constant state of flux, both geographically and on paper. Its ever-increasing size and population perpetuate constant demand for new and/or revised policies, studies, tactics, services, etc. In this article, we’ll discuss just a few of the more recent changes affecting America’s WUI.

Wildland Training for Structural Firefighters
The “Skills Crosswalk: Wildland Training for Structural Firefight­ers” project, which is led by the U.S. Fire Admin­istration (USFA), in partnership with the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), has identified parallel technical competencies between structural firefighters and officers, and those of four NWCG positions: Firefighter Type 2 (FFT2), Fire­fighter Type 1 (FFT1), Engine Boss Single Resource (ENGB) and Strike Team Leader Engine (STEN).

The Crosswalk program has also identified wild­land skills and knowledge that qualified and experi­enced structural firefighters wouldn’t have acquired through their regular training, such as wildland fire tactical concepts and wildland fire behavior. Learning modules were identified with the NWCG training courses to address these gaps.

The “Gap” courses, as they’re called, build on existing skill sets and prior training of structural firefighters to minimize redun­dancy and classroom time for those seeking to develop their wild­land fire skills. Each Gap course is composed entirely of NWCG training material pulled into specific courses.

The new Gap courses are:

  • G-130, which corresponds to FFT2;
  • G-131, which corresponds to FFT1;
  • G-231, which corresponds to ENGB; and
  • G-330, which corresponds to STEN.

To obtain more information on the Crosswalk program and to view a Gap course Webcast, visit www.usfa.dhs.gov/nfa/about/crosswalk.shtm.

The FLAME Act
Earlier this year, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 412–3 to pass H.R. 1404, the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement (FLAME) Act. Introduced by Congressman Nick J. Rahall II (D-WV), the FLAME Act calls for a supple­mental funding source for catastrophic emergency wildland fire suppression activities on federal land.

Wildland costs have soared in recent years, placing a heavy burden on other federally funded programs, including vital fire-prevention activities. Forty-eight percent of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) budget is currently consumed by wildland fire suppression costs. The “Flame Fund” would alleviate financial pressure and free up funds for other essential programs.

Ultimately the amount of money that goes into the fund will be decided by appropriators; however, the bill states that the fund should contain at least the average amount that federal agencies have spent on emergency wildland fire suppression over the past 5 fiscal years.

The bill also requires the Secretary of the Interior and the Secretary of Agriculture to develop cohesive wildland fire management strategies and to establish a grant program within these departments to assist communities. The grants could be used to purchase equipment, provide training, develop community wildfire protection plans and educate the public.

Similar legislation passed the House last year but never came up in the Senate. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) introduced the FLAME Act’s companion bill (S 561) this year.

Can Concrete Save California?
There’s a new eco-friendly building material on the market that could dramatically affect WUI firefighting efforts, thereby saving millions of dollars in firefighting resources, but some of the areas that could benefit from it most may not be able to use it.

Autoclaved aerated concrete (AAC) is made up of sand, water, lime, portland cement and aluminum powder. When cured, AAC can withstand a 2,000-degree fire for 4 hours.

But its benefits extend beyond fire resistance. AAC is lightweight, but thick enough to deaden sound. It’s also energy-efficient, bullet- and waterproof, and impervious to termites. It even has “green” characteristics in that it generates no waste when created, and it’s recyclable.

One major area that could benefit greatly from AAC’s fire resistance is California; however, there’s one obstacle California may not be able to overcome: earthquakes.

According to the California Building Standards Commission (CBSC), AAC has never been fully tested to see if it can withstand a sizeable earthquake, and if it hasn’t properly been tested, it can’t be used to construct homes or any other structure in the state.

The engineers who developed the code standards for AAC claim AAC has been thoroughly tested to withstand seis­mic activity, but California officials haven’t taken the time to review the available data on AAC, so they aren’t aware of its strength.

California follows the national building code standards, but it’s the only state that adopted the 2006 International Building Code without the companion housing code that includes acceptance of AAC in seismic areas. As a result, Cal­ifornia officials have been accused of “playing politics” as part of their reasoning for not being receptive to the material.

As everyone knows, earthquakes are a serious threat to life safety in California, which is why officials may be hesitant to officially state AAC is safe to use in residential structures.

They may be wise to wait, politics or not, as four earth­quakes struck the Gulf of California on Aug. 3. The epi­center was located 250 miles south of Mexicali. Each quake registered from 5.0 to 6.9 on the Richter scale, causing some buildings in Southern California to shake and roll.

To learn more about AAC, visit the Autoclaved Aerated Concrete Products Association at ww.aacpa.org.

Missing the Mark?
According to one recent study from the University of Colorado—the first study that compares the USFS’s cut­ting and clearing with communities and subdivisions—the WUI problem isn’t getting better, in part due to the very projects established by the federal government to mitigate WUI challenges.

The government spends billions of dollars on fuel-reduction projects; however, researchers discovered that in the past 5 years, only 11 percent of those projects are taking place in the correct locations. This means that homeowners living in the WUI who thought they’d ben­efit from these fuel-reduction projects aren’t any more protected than they were before the projects began.

The intention of the federally funded fuel-reduction programs was to thin out forests in WUI areas; however, it appears back-country forests are receiving the majority of the projects’ attention. Between 2004 and 2008, only 3 per­cent of the projects took place in the WUI. An additional 8 percent took place in WUI buffer zones.

Since 2001, the USFS has treated 15 million acres of public land in the WUI for “hazardous fuels reduction and landscape restoration”; however, in the same timeframe, they’ve treated roughly 29 million acres outside the WUI.

So why is the USFS failing to treat the proper areas? According to the study, 70 percent of the WUI is privately owned, therefore the federal government cannot interfere or require homeowners to make their homes firewise.

Another problem: The study found that fuel reduction in the WUI costs three to four times more than in strictly wildland or remote areas.

To access the complete study, visit the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal Web site at www.pnas.org/content/106/26/10706.

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Photo Brian Litt

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Chaos in California

Published Thursday, October 1, 2009
The wildland/urban interface (WUI) is in a constant state of flux, both geographically and on paper.