J14.5 A 'Red Flag Warning' for communicating wildland fire risk: translating real-time fire risk assessments into action points for fire managers and for at-risk populations

Wednesday, 26 January 2011: 11:30 AM
618-620 (Washington State Convention Center)
Ron Steffens, Green Mountain College, Poultney, VT

Within the professional communities of fire managers and fire weather forecasters, our "Lessons Learned" are often triggered by the forced introspection and analyses following fireline tragedies. In the aftermath of the South Canyon Fire of 1994, in which 14 firefighters died in a firestorm propelled by cold-front winds and freeze-killed fuels, both the fire culture and fire management policies underwent key shifts. Of myriad changes, many touched on the connection of weather and fire, including recommendations for a more precise analysis of critical fire weather conditions, an increased use of spot weather forecasts, and the increased development of fire weather forecasting and fire behavior analysts. The post-fire recommendations also phased out confusing terms for critical fire weather -- before South Canyon, one listened over the radio for Red Flag Watches and Red Flag Warnings. After South Canyon, the terms were delineated, with "Fire Weather Watch" referring to an increased risk of unspecified timing while the more compelling "Red Flag Warning" refers to fire weather conditions that are either occurring, imminent, or have a very high probability of occurring."

In the subsequent 15 years, communication processes within the profession have increasingly relied on complex yet clearly delineated risk assessments. The communication with the fire-affected public has also diversified, with reliance, though, on the tried-and-true methods of adjectival fire danger (a five-stage level, from Low to Extreme, often displayed as an arrow on a five-colored chart next to a graphic of that master fire communicator, Smokey Bear) and the revised "Red Flag Warning." Additionally, fire managers and fire weather forecasters have diversified their use of communication media and the immediacy of the products published, thereby demonstrating a "symbolic legitimacy," which entails an earned authority to both frame an issue and recommend actions within that frame. But in terms of risk analysis -- of long-term risk from climate change, of seasonal risk when homes are built amid flammable forests, and of real-time risk during a fire incident -- the fire decision and communications process succeeds at "evacuation orders" without a full communication of the risk factors that support the evacuation, or of the actions in advance of the the real-time risk that might preclude the evacuation.

The fire communications ecosystem, as it is currently evolving, serves three key purposes: (1) to support pre-fire planning that enables more effective fire protection activities both before and during a fire; (2) to support incident-based emergency communication, both to maintain "command and control" among professionals and to safely manage the at-risk public; and (3) to convey a professional and public understanding of the potential for "conflagration" fires resulting from fuel changes and from climate change. Current tools for translating key fire information often focus on professional "operational" communications, including a richness of "Lessons Learned" and SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures), but the communications ecosystem lacks a "Red Flag" approach to unify the communications process for more complex concepts (such as real-time fire risk projections) in a format that can be conveyed to a concerned public. An analysis of current and evolving risk analysis products and their associated messaging processes will seek to discover a synthesis (the equivalent of a "Red Flag Warning" for a landscape) that can communicate the risk analyses tools applied by fire managers/fire forecasters to an at-risk public.

An assessment of the range of communication processes -- both internally, within the fire management and firefighting community, and externally from fire managers to other emergency managers and to the public -- identifies a continuum of communication across time scales and both intra- and inter-group audiences:

* Fire Danger Adjectives (public, updated week to week); Energy Release Component graphs (internal, daily and seasonal trends); and Red Flag Warnings ( external and internal, day to day)

* Assessments of long-term fuel and fire hazards (including climate change impacts)

* Seasonal and daily fuel moisture trends

* Lightning Occurrence Maps (internal only)

* Red Zone software for mapping urban interface hazards (pre- and during incident)

* WFDSS: Wildland Fire Decision Support System (Fire information and risk analysis tools, for internal audiences only)

* NWS Fire Weather website pages (internal and external)

* Fire Dispatch website pages (local and regional)

* InciWeb (public information for large incidents; unified information structure for all incidents)

* Twitter and RSS Feeds

* Cell Phone announcements (mostly for larger urban interface fires)

* Trap Lines for Informational Flyers / Public Meetings / Door to Door Contacts

* Evacuation Orders (including "Leave or Shelter in Place," as practiced in Australia)

In "Environmental Communication and the Public Sphere," Robert Cox asks two questions key to the study and practice of environmental communication in the climate-change era: "(1) What counts as scientific knowledge? (2) Who controls its production, dissemination, and use? To ask (and answer) these questions is to ask about the symbolic legitimacy boundaries of science itself. It also asks about the types of communication that contending parties use as they challenge, reinforce, and reframe these symbolic boundaries" (304). An analysis of fire and fire weather messages may allow us to cross the lines of contention regarding climate change by analyzing specific instances of real-time risk analysis which might then be applied to the more amorphous risks of climate change. In doing so, we can apply the "Lessons Learned" from tragedy fires in order to more successfully prepare for and manage future risks

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