In the past few months, I’ve come across articles that have discussed the importance of preplanning for potential wildland/urban interface (WUI) events. In Texas and other areas where WUI/wildland fires destroyed homes by the hundreds this past year, it’s painfully clear that the WUI issue is one that needs our full attention if we’re ever going to have a chance at preventing another disastrous year.
Of course, preplanning is key to defeating any type of fire, but with WUI situations, preplanning includes structural triage. When we mention triage, usually what comes to mind is a rapid assessment of conditions that help us determine the survivability of an individual or individuals in medical or mass-casualty incidents. Much like triaging victims, we can determine the “survivability” of structures in the WUI—but the best time to do so is well before flame and smoke are encroaching upon a neighborhood. Note: For the purposes of this article, I will be talking about pre-incident triage, because it’s during this time that we have the most opportunity to effect change.
Make the Most of Down Time
It’s a good idea to use “quiet time” or down time to get out into your target neighborhoods and take a good, hard look at the values at risk. Doing a good amount of structural triage during this time period can provide you with a mental “slideshow” on which you can base your decisions when the havoc of an actual incident is occurring.
But this isn’t a task that you have to complete alone; in fact, it’s better if you do it with your company. That way, you not only get input from the entire crew, but you also have the opportunity to interact with the community and promote important concepts, such as defensible space, the IAFC’s Ready, Set, Go! program or the Firewise program. My department has been performing structural triage prior to WUI events in our area for some time (like many of you), and we’ve found that it helps us—and our community members—put faces with names, and lets the community know that we’re invested in protecting our citizens and their property.
What to Look For
As you perform your pre-incident structural triage, keep in mind that there are several things you need to look for. Many of the items listed below are basic, but when it comes to saving someone’s property, the basics can make or break the operation:
- Visibility—Check to make sure you can see the driveway or lane and that, if you commit to going down this road, there’s a definite value at risk at the end. Also check for proper markings, such as a fire number or address. During afire event, you wouldn’t want to spend valuable time wandering aimlessly, looking for things that might not be there.
- Access—Once you’ve identified the proper driveway/lane, try to determine if you can adequately maneuver apparatus onto it. Any roadway/driveway needs to be wide enough for engineers to safely position the apparatus and turn it around, and for other vehicles to maneuver around the apparatus. Also check for proper street lighting, fuel loading along the street (does it feel like you’re in a tunnel?), and the grade or slope. Do you have to use four-wheel-drive and a low gear to get in or out? And is it a dead end, or are there several homes off one lane?
- The area around the house—Look to see if the property owner has taken preventive measures to prepare for a fire; in other words, look for signs of defensible space. Check the proximity of the fuel load to the house, as well as the amount and types of fuel present. In particular, look for potentially flammable vegetation near the home. Also check for a potential safety zone for your apparatus and crew in case things don’t go according to plan. And don’t forget about power sources and fuels: Check to see if power lines are overhead or underground, and look around for natural gas, propane or fuel oil cylinders or tanks. These too might be underground. Other things you should look for: firewood storage location; “stuff” or “collectibles” around the house that could add to the fuel loading; outbuildings near the home, their content and construction type; and any additional accessible water sources, such as ponds, creeks or swimming pools.
- The home itself—Check the condition of the residence and its construction methods. Check the roofing material to see if it’s combustible (wood shake shingles) or non-combustible (metal, asphalt shingles, clay tiles). Check any porches for their materials and construction quality. Are they tightly built with covered soffits and vents? Check for openings or attachments, such as gutters, gable ends or porch slats, that may have accumulated leaves or needles in, under or around them. Would these same items catch flying embers and harbor them in a place where they would reach extra fuel and sustain combustion? In addition, check the windows to see if they’re single-pane glass or thermal-pane glass, which reflects more heat. Look for shutters that could be closed from the exterior as well as window coverings on the interior. Are the interior coverings light and frilly or heavy blinds? Lastly, check for covered breezeways between the home and any auxiliary buildings.
- Occupancy—Determine whether the home is lived in year-round or used as a vacation home. Find out how many adults/children on average live there, and if anyone with special needs lives in the home who would require assistance during a WUI event.
This list could go on and on, but I think you get the point: Doing a 360-degree survey of the whole property before an event allows us to know what we’re up against and plan ahead. Tip: Ideally, you should perform the survey with the homeowner so that you can address and possibly resolve any issues that might cause us to triage the home as unsavable during a WUI event.
Putting It All Together
The next step: Use all of this information to develop a simple, straightforward form that contains a basic map of the area, address numbers, known hazards or special concerns, safety zones and escape routes, along with some form of easily understood triage score. This information could then be passed out to any agency that might be coming in to help during an incident, giving them the background information they would need to make sound tactical decisions during the firefight.
Things to Remember
Keep in mind that, just as during a mass-casualty incident, many things won’t go according to plan. So, despite our best intentions and detailed preplanning, we must be prepared to deal with or operate within unforeseen conditions.
Remember too that just because a home was determined to be savable or unsavable at one time may not mean that it maintains the same status as the incident is taking place. Circumstances may change over time, so it’s critical to reassess the property or neighborhood whenever possible, and to maintain situational awareness in a fast-moving WUI event. It may be that with the given circumstances or with a critical intervention, something could be saved that otherwise would have been written off.
Above all else, always keep in mind the safety of crews that are going to be doing this work. Base every decision on that thought from the very beginning—no structure is worth firefighter lives.