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

Jan. 1, 2005
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 replaced regular Army units just a week ago. Sure, they received some outstanding training in preparation for their deployment, including a two-week stay at the Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin, CA. There they were exposed to whole simulated communities of insurgents and events as real as those they might face in the weeks ahead. But here tonight on this road, this is the real deal!

The training they received gave them a new awareness as to operational risks and provided them with new tools to alert them to lethal threats. They recognized that the narrowing road entering the community ahead created hiding places for snipers, that debris in the roadway may hide an improvised explosive device and that the picture of Saddam on that wall may well be a booby trap, waiting to explode when torn from the wall. But along with this training came good intelligence, created in part by soldiers who worked these same mean streets before them.

In the hands of the convoy’s commanding officer was a set of cards with text boxes shaded in red, yellow and green. One card was labeled with the name of the community in front of the convoy in large letters with a “yellow” color code indicating moderate overall risk when operating in this area.

But the card also offered much greater detail. In the same color coding in smaller boxes below the community’s name were details about the community’s political unrest, the use of explosives, the ethnic makeup of the community, the presence of insurgents and whether the community was supportive of U.S. policies. Each of these smaller boxes denoting the various details was coded red for high risk, yellow for moderate, and green for light risk. In a 15-second glance, the officer was well briefed on the risks that lie ahead.

Think of it. You are sent with an engine strike team over 100 miles to protect a mountain community you have never heard of before. The fire is large and out of control, and your division supervisor seems miles away by radio. Your firefighters are tired, dirty and hungry from moving from one threat to another all day long. The fire is moving rapidly against this unseen community and you and your engines are ordered to take up positions along a lonely dirt road in the middle of nowhere.

Then, a stroke of luck! A local agency firefighter arrives and hands you a set of pre-plan maps for the area. Included are cards similar to those used in Iraq, showing red, yellow and green colors depicting the risks of protecting the homes you have been assigned. In a glance, you are forewarned as to what risks you face.

Borrowed from the U.S. Army-National Training Center, through the assistance of Generals Scott Wallace and Joseph Fil and Dr. Jack Thorpe, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, three California fire agencies have taken lessons from the mean streets of Iraq. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection-San Diego Unit, the Orange County Fire Authority, and the City of San Diego Fire-Rescue Department are already using the color-coding processes in their assessment of structural protection risks in the wildland-urban interface (W/UI). These tools are being integrated into pre-fire planning for higher risk communities. Firefighters deployed into these areas in the future may consult these tools for immediate information on the risks associated with their structure protection assignments. The tool is being used both for areas where large housing tracts abut wildlands and for rural mountain enclaves.

In the pre-fire plans, the association of a neighborhood with a particular color code has a distinct translation. These definitions are:

  • 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.

The beauty of this system is that it allows experienced local fire officers to convey risk-assessment and safety issues to people they will never meet, and convey tremendous amounts of information in seconds. And if you’re the tired, dirty and hungry firefighter facing a mountain of fire bearing down on your next structure-protection assignment, seconds are all the time you may have to read and use such an assessment.


For both Risk Condition Red and Risk Condition Yellow Neighborhoods

Guidance: One engine per every two to four perimeter structures in subdivisions (variability is based on prevalent fire behavior, weather, etc.), one engine for every isolated structure. Two engines per multi-family structure or small group of isolated structures.

Reserves: Add one strike team of engines as floaters for every 100 perimeter structures in Risk Condition Yellow neighborhoods, add two strike teams for Risk Condition Red neighborhoods.

Formula: Number of perimeter structures divided by 2 or 4 (select 2 for extreme conditions) equals the basic number of engines needed. Add one strike team more for every 100 perimeter structures for Risk Condition Yellow, two for Risk Condition Red.

CAUTION: Do not over-commit resources to any area beyond the capacity of available safety zones.

Consider hand crews for fuel clearance around structures or dozer line as time permits.

For Risk Condition Green Neighborhoods:

Guidance: One strike team of engines per every two blocks of perimeter homes (average 30-40 tract homes per block, half of which will face perimeter).

Reserves: Add one strike team of engines for every 200 perimeter homes as floaters. Consider use of Patrols or Type 3 engines as floaters.

Formula: Number of perimeter blocks divided by 2 equals the number of engine strike teams needed. Add one strike team for every 200 perimeter homes. Consider additional resources for exposed multi-family dwellings.

Bill Clayton and Mike Rohde will present “From Tactical to Practical: Applying Military Combat Pre-Planning to the Fire Service” and Rohde will present “Climate Change and Fire Behavior: How and Why Fires Are Becoming More Dangerous in the West” at Firehouse World 2005 in San Diego, Jan. 31-Feb. 4.Bill Clayton is a division chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) in San Diego County. He possesses 45 years of fire service experience, and a master of science degree. In 2003, he served as an incident commander for the Cedar Fire, the worst urban interface wildfire in the history of California. Mike Rohde is a battalion chief with the Orange County Fire Authority. He has 32 years of fire service experience and a master of science degree. In 2003, he was a structure protection branch director at two major Southern California wildfires.

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