UC Berkeley News


As the 15th anniversary of the devastating Oakland hills firestorm (above) approaches, and late-summer days in the East Bay grow seasonally warmer, local homeowners are more alert to wildfire dangers than at any other time of year. It's a propitious moment for the debut of the online Fire Information Engine Toolkit, developed by Berkeley researchers, which includes a "homeowner wildfire assessment" among its resources. (Jonathan King photo)

Fire center provides homeowners with wildfire-risk-assessment tool
Municipal decision-makers and fire researchers will also find useful resources on center's new website

| 20 September 2006

Campus fire researchers are launching a new set of interactive online tools to help homeowners, community leaders, and researchers assess the risk of damage to their homes and communities from wildfires.

The interactive site, officially called the Fire Information Engine Toolkit (firecenter.berkeley.edu/toolkit) debuted last week. It was developed by researchers at the Center for Fire Research and Outreach, based at the College of Natural Resources. Users can type in a specific address to see if they live in a region at risk for wildfires or to see 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, while a photo-rich "homeowners' wildfire mitigation guide" provides clear views of common potential hazards (poorly adjusted roll-up garage doors, for example) and useful suggestions for how to fix them.

The fire center's new website features an online form (above) that asks homeowners a series of detailed questions, then assesses the answers to provide a customized report about wildfire vulnerability. Elsewhere on the site are suggested steps that can be taken to reduce those risks.

"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 its roof construction or the density of vegetation near the structure," says Max Moritz, a 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."

Says Faith Kearns, the fire center's associate director, "No other site allows people to get suggestions for reducing fire risk that are targeted to their own homes."

To create a single, comprehensive risk-assessment tool, the researchers reviewed a number of the most widely used fire-hazard ranking methods - each dealing with different risk factors, such as dense vegetation or the width of roads leading to the homes - as well as the latest wildfire research. 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 say.

"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," says 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.