U.S. researchers create scale to determine wildfire risk

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This past year, the U.S. has experienced one of the worst fire seasons to hit the country in decades. More than 7 million acres of land burned across the country, triggered by a combination of extremely high temperatures and one of the worst droughts in years.

According to Reuters, this has led a team of U.S. researchers to develop a first-of-its-kind numerical scale to measure wildfire risks to property and communities.

The news agency reports that the index is devised as an ascending scale from 1 to 4. It will rate the vulnerability of homes or other structures to wildfires according to factors like climate, surrounding terrain, and the types of vegetation that could fuel a fire, as well as building design and materials.

The system was reportedly designed to help fire managers better allocate firefighting resources according to potential property losses. Until now, the distribution of those resources were based on only the size and scope of a fire.

Reuters notes that the rankings will be assigned as two separate numbers — one gauging a structure’s vulnerability to direct fire exposure and one measuring the potential risk from blowing embers.

“You could have a vulnerability to one and not the other,” said Alex Maranghides, fire protection engineer with the National Institute of Standards and Technology, to Reuters. “But structures could be hardened to protect against both kinds of threats.”

The news agency goes on to note that the wildfire index differs from numerical scales used to rate other natural disasters such as earthquakes or hurricanes — which are essentially measured according to their own inherent strength.

The regions that stand to benefit most from this scale are those with the greatest exposure to wildfires. Many of these regions lie in the Western and Southern states where forests and grasslands most often meet residential neighbourhoods and resorts.

Maranghides developed the system with a U.S. Forest Service researcher. He told Reuters that results from planned field testing in Texas and California will be available in the coming months.

More than 740,000 residences across 13 Western states were reportedly ranked as being at high or very high risk for wildfire damage, representing total property values estimated at $136 billion.

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