U.S. researchers have been working on a system to measure and predict the destructiveness of wildfires—similar to the way officials use the magnitude scale for earthquakes and other tools to rate and evaluate tornadoes and hurricanes.
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) hopes its Wildland Urban Interface Hazard Scale will tell residents the likely intensity of a wildfire burning into their neighborhood.
The scale would allow city planners to assign better building codes for the millions of people who live in fire-prone areas in the U.S. West and would also measure how those homes could contribute to the spread of a fire.
The proposed scale would range from E1 to E4—with E4 being a location’s highest exposure to fire, from grasslands to a forest in a remote mountain canyon. Building codes and buffer zones between homes and forest could then be set accordingly.
Nelson Bryner, research engineer for the institute’s fire research division, envisions the day when TV stations report that a wildfire is burning in an E4 community. But he said the scale is primarily meant to form the technical foundation for tougher building codes for high-risk areas.
Insurers also are eager for results. Payouts after western wildfires have grown exponentially. In the 1970s, wildfires destroyed about 400 homes nationwide. Since 2000, wildfires have destroyed about 3,000 homes per year, according to NIST.
Researchers are analyzing building materials, grasses, trees, shrubs, topography, weather patterns and especially the behavior of wind-driven embers as ignition fuel.
NIST has already developed a mobile app and is developing other computer programs that will allow fire marshals, building inspectors and others to rate an area before a fire starts. Researchers caution it will be several years before that happens.