Researchers Intentionally Set Wildfire

Researchers Intentionally Set Wildfire

24 March 2011

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USA — A research center in South Carolina sparked a wildfire demonstration with the hope of teaching property owners how to protect themselves in the event of an actual fire threat.

The Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Savannah River National Laboratory, the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate held the demonstration of the wildfire research being conducted at the IBHS Research Center in Chester County, S.C., on Thursday.

“The wildfire testing conducted at the IBHS Research Center will help property owners take control of and minimize their risks by identifying vulnerable areas in their structures, and developing methods to reduce that vulnerability and make the buildings more resistant to wildfire,” said Julie Rochman, CEO and president of IBHS.

“Previous field research shows that it is not direct flame contact that causes many buildings to burn during wildfires. Rather, it is embers that create spot fires by igniting vegetation, debris and flammable materials that lead to ignition of the exterior of a house and embers that are blown into buildings through gable vents, soffit vents and other openings that can ignite a house from the inside. Extreme heat radiating from the wildfire can preheat vegetation and building materials damage siding materials, and break windows. These effects can greatly increase the likelihood that a home will ignite,” Rochman said.

Media from North and South Carolina, television networks and news magazines filled up an observation room to watch the demonstration through a large glass window.

In the lab area, pipes sent out smoke that quickly turned into an ember storm.

A wall of fans sent the embers were sent toward a home, which had a steel frame, three kinds of wall siding, three types of roofing material and two kinds of gutters.

The embers quickly set parts of the house on fire.

“It’s actually been a really interesting, challenging task to create realistic wildfire embers on a scale like this. No one’s done it on this scale before,” said Anne Cope, research director for IBHS. “This is really the first time somebody has launched embers into a realistic wind environment surrounding an entire home.”

Jack Cohen of the Rocky Mountain Research Station has done 20 years of wildfire research with the USDA Forest Service. The IBHS demonstration helped him continue his research, but in a controlled environment.

The information learned from the demonstration will be compiled and then packaged for consumers, insurance companies and builders.

Gwen Beavans of the USDA Forest Service said she hopes the demonstration will teach people that embers, not a big wall of flames, are what cause the most destruction.

Once embers catch a home on fire, it starts a domino effect, Beavans told News4’s Mike McCormick.

“That home starts to burn, and it becomes the fuel in the flames, not the wildfire. The home itself becomes the source of flames for the neighbor’s home. That home then burns, and it sends up embers and it lands on the next home,” said Beavans. “You really don’t want to wait till you smell the smoke and see the flames in the air to start thinking about, ‘Wow, I should do something to prevent my home from igniting.’”

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