Lessons from Iraq Offer a Different Future For Southern California Wildland/Urban Interface Fires

Three California fire agencies have taken lessons from the mean streets by developing a new color-coding system. Bill Clayton and Mike Rohde discuss the system and its effects.

A string of Humvees and armored personnel carriers moves along an elevated road somewhere on the outskirts of a Baghdad neighborhood. The soldiers are U.S. Army Reserves, activated for a year of duty in Iraq. They are alert and tensed for any surprises that may come. They are new to Iraq, having...

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  • Risk Condition “Red” – High risk for structural ignition. Difficult to extremely difficult to protect homes. Possible risk of firefighter entrapment. Extensive resources or complex tactics required.

  • Risk Condition “Yellow” – Moderate risk for structural ignition. Increased difficulty of protecting structures. Strike teams required for neighborhood protection.

  • Risk Condition “Green” – Low risk for structural ignition. Relatively easy to protect neighborhoods with limited or single resources.

In the pre-plans, the neighborhood name is given an overall color theme. But how does the pre-planner determine this summary of risk? What “color” should the community at risk be?

Most wildland firefighters would agree that a number of factors would play into this equation. To deal with this, the assessment tool has a matrix of factors that are also given colors using the same red-yellow-green code. These factors are shown on the pre-plans in smaller text boxes under the community name, and use the same red-yellow-green format. The factors that make up the matrix include:

  • Firefighter safety – Defines the presence of absence of firefighter safety zones.
  • Civilian safety – Defines whether an affected population should be subject to mandatory evacuation, shelter-in-place, or other actions.
  • Hazmat – Defines the presence of bulk chemicals, LPG, fuels or other hazards.
  • Communications – Describes the quality or shortfalls of radio and cellular communications systems.
  • Fuels – Describes the fuel condition.
  • Topography – Describes the slope condition.
  • Clearance – Describes defendable space presence around structures.
  • Water – Describes water system availability.
  • Construction – Describes the presence of wood-shingle roofs or other combustible building features.
  • Structural spacing – Describes the density of structures.
  • Access – Describes the road features and in-and-out community access.
  • Tactical air support – Describes the availability of aircraft and landing zones.
  • Air safety – Describes an area’s flight hazards.

The assessment factors are also given a short-hand designator for ease of reading in the matrix. For instance “roof covering” is depicted simply as “roofs” in the matrix. They are also given a numerical rating for those who have problems readily identifying colors (red = 1, yellow = 2 and green = 3). Additional undesignated boxes are left available in the matrix for addition of special hazards that may be specific to a given area. For instance, the presence of explosive ordnance storage on a military base would warrant special recognition and can be noted in the blank boxes.

As the colors are filled in through onsite assessment, a trend is established that shows rating factors are more of one color than another. As you may imagine, a high-risk community composed of a single road in-and-out, poor clearance and wood shingle roofs will have a lot of red in the assessment matrix. That could cause the planner to conclude that the overall community theme should be “red”. An uncolored box with “N/A” would indicate this factor is not applicable in this setting.

Assessing Risks

The final product, called a “RAM” (for Risk Assessment Matrix) is a relatively small box of information that uses colors to describe various hazards. (See the example above: “Laguna Area – Big Bend Area” pre-plan). This assessment matrix can then be placed on pocket cards or pre-plans themselves. These plans are often also inter-agency efforts that allow various agencies and cooperators such as the U.S. Forest Service, adjacent fire departments or law enforcement to contribute to the assessment.

The Orange County Fire Authority and two cooperating departments have taken the assessment one step further by placing a resource deployment recommendation with the matrix for pre-planning purposes. The guidance is this: The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is a far-flung agency spanning the state with stations from Oregon to the Mexican border. The assessment matrix system has been proposed here for statewide adoption, which may give firefighters a common language with which to understand and communicate risk no matter how far they have to travel.