Wildfires in recent years have increased in size and severity putting many communities across the country at risk.
Adam Coates, a wildland fire ecology expert at Virginia Tech, says that community preparedness is essential through adequate education about the risk of wildfires and management of potentially hazardous scenarios.
“Many of the geographic locations most at risk exist in the western U.S. as these areas contain either fuel systems composed of vegetation that rapidly grows and rapidly dries out (shrub and grass systems) or locations contain dense, mature forests that may be prone to ignition during dry summer months,” Coates said.
Coates explains that many of these locations are part of the expansive wildland-urban interface. “In these locations, homes and communities are literally situated within a primed fuel complex without any barriers to prevent wildfire spread throughout the community.
“Exceptions to the western U.S. predominance are found in the eastern U.S. In some of these locations, changes in volatile species have occurred and have led to increased risk,” said Coates. “Forests are also dense in many locations and the structure and condition of these fuels may lead to really large wildfires when conditions are dry.”
Coates said that we’ve seen this play out in autumn months within some southern states, for example, probably most drastically noted in the 2016 autumn wildfires that took place in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
As homeowners and communities prepare to limit and manage the harmful effects of wildfires this season, Coates offers the following advice for community planners.
- Housing areas should be constructed to promote adequate boundaries of potentially hazardous vegetation surrounding the housing community.
- Entrances and exits to housing communities should be built to prevent one-way entrances and exits and fire hydrants should be located throughout those communities.
- Building materials and vegetation should be selected to minimize potential ignitions that may compromise houses within residential communities.
- Individuals can support organizations and entities that are working to conduct active forest management around their neighborhoods and communities.
Adam Coates is an assistant professor in the department of forest resources and environmental conservation, in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment. Coates maintains an active research program focused primarily on fire ecology. This includes elements of fire behavior, fuels, fire effects, silviculture, and restoration ecology.