College of Natural Resources, UC Berkeley

Researchers launch online wildfire risk assessment tool

September 14, 2006

Fire researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, are launching a new set of interactive online tools to help homeowners, community leaders and researchers assess the risk of wildfire damage to their homes and communities.

The interactive site, officially called the Fire Information Engine Toolkit, debuted Wednesday, Sept. 13 and can be found at http://firecenter.berkeley.edu/toolkit. It was developed by researchers at the Center for Fire Research and Outreach, based at UC Berkeley's College of Natural Resources. Users can type in a specific address to see if they live in a region at risk for wildfires, as well as obtain information about historic fires that have occurred in the area since 1950.

Homeowners can also use the site to get a science-based assessment of their vulnerability to wildfire based upon the answers they provide on an online form.

"What's new about these tools is that homeowners and community officials can get an individualized assessment of a specific building's fire risk based upon such factors as the material used in their roof construction or the density of vegetation near the structure," said Max Moritz, UC Berkeley cooperative extension wildland fire specialist and lead researcher for the fire toolkit project. "The toolkit then provides immediate feedback that helps identify areas where people would get the biggest payoff in mitigation.""There are no other sites like this that allow people to get suggestions for reducing fire risk that are targeted to their own homes," added Faith Kearns, associate director of the Center for Fire Research and Outreach.

The researchers reviewed a number of the most widely used fire hazard ranking methods - each dealing with different risk factors including dense vegetation, installation of attic vent screens, or the width of the roads leading to the homes - as well as the latest wildfire research to create one comprehensive risk assessment tool. In addition, the researchers are utilizing geographic information systems (GIS) and Google Maps to display fire hazard information.

Locations of major wildfires active within the previous week are also mapped on the fire center site, and readers can link from there to recent fire-related news stories.

Local officials and decision makers can also download forms to complete a community-wide assessment on fire risk, and easily upload the results to a Web map. Such information could be used to plan education and risk reduction campaigns, the researchers said.

"One of our goals with this project is to raise grassroots awareness of the fire risk of one's home or neighborhood among the public, since we are ultimately most concerned with the loss of lives and property in fire-prone areas," said Moritz.

The site contains useful information for fire researchers, as well. Scientists can get background information on fuel models and fire behavior, and download the HFire computer modeling software used to predict the speed and direction of fire spread. The program, developed by Marco Morais when he was a graduate student in geography at UC Santa Barbara, can also be used for multi-year simulations of wildfires.

A U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant helped support this project.

--By Sarah Yang, Media Relations | 13 September 2006

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