Editor’s note: Jen Haas Gustafson was a Wildfire Preparedness Coordinator for Mountain Valleys RC&D, a non-profit in Western North Carolina, for the past 3 years. Jen is a FAC Net member, and also collaborates with our partners at the Fire Learning Network. In March 2023, she decided to become a full-time contractor under Wooden Eye Resource Management LLC. Wooden Eye primarily focuses on community wildfire preparedness and mitigation action planning. In this blog, Jen reflects on a recent visit that she took to the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) along with a few partners working in fire resilience in the southeast. Blog cover photo courtesy of Jen Haas Gustafson.
The large, 6-story tall cement room felt damp and created an echo when a person spoke while a group of 12 wildfire adaptation professionals looked around the chamber room in amazement, giddy like little kids. “We pour wood chips into the cylindrical hopper and the machine drops a few pieces into the burn chamber, igniting the raw material and making embers,” says Chris Flynn, the General Manager of the IBHS Research Center. “Then the embers are blown through the stove pipe cylinders and shot at our target, usually a house.” Nerdy giggles follow.
The Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) is a non-profit organization supported by insurance companies to test market-ready building materials against severe weather impacts. IBHS conducts full-scale research demonstrations to study the impact of hail, wind, rain, and wildfire on commercial and residential structures. The research guides the enhancement of structural design and construction, helping to create more resilient communities. Check out FAC Net member and IBHS Research Engineer Dan Gorham’s blog post about working at the facility.
Our group of southeast partners was delighted to visit the IBHS research lab facility in Richburg, South Carolina for a learning exchange opportunity in January 2023. Each partner’s work focuses on educating communities about wildfire risk and providing resources and support to reduce their risk. Communicating with residents about wildfire risk mitigation can be a challenge, especially in the southeast where wildfire events do not get much media attention. Visiting IBHS gave us an opportunity to learn more about the science behind our messaging from the researchers themselves. It also provided time for our regional partners to discuss specific challenges in the southeast and exchange ideas and strategies on how to get more residents engaged.
Partners from the following organizations were in attendance:
- Appalachian RC&D FAC Coalition
- Mountain Valleys RC&D (NC)
- Blue Ridge RC&D (NC)
- Chestatee Chattahoochee RC&D (GA)
- Forest Stewards Guild (Southeast)
- North Carolina Forest Service (NC)
- Georgia Forestry Commission (GA)
- South Carolina Forestry Commission (SC)
Lessons on Home Hardening from a Wildfire Researcher
We started our visit in the IBHS conference room to hear about the latest research from IBHS staff members, including lead wildfire research engineer, Faraz Hedayati. “I worked with IBHS with my PhD dissertation focusing on embers. The first two years I worked here, I was heavily involved in characterizing the ember generators; working with our production team to create realistic embers,” he says. “The other part of my research was adding different components of the building, for example, decks, siding, windows and how they ignite.”
He shared with us some of the research IBHS is doing that involves defensible space. In 2018, with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), they expanded their studies to assess the relationship between one burning structure and the exposure to a neighboring structure to investigate structure-to-structure fire spread and identify safe structure separation distances. They found that a distance of 50 feet between structures has less risk of home-to-home ignition. Here’s a link to the study: Building to building, wind and fire research.
Other things we learned from researcher Faraz Hedayati and IBHS staff:
- If a deck ignites, the fire intensity is strongly linked to the joist material and wind conditions. Metal joists are the best choice for new decks. Here’s the link to the study’s executive summary.
- Even if composite boards are used for a deck, embers could fall through and ignite the material underneath. The spacing of the boards is significant but also the material below the deck.
- There are technologies that improve home hardening, including vent mesh technology that expand and seal when exposed to heat. Also important are using metal ridge vents instead of plastic ones (plastic melts), and ⅛” metal mesh screening over all vents.
- Under wildfire conditions, the outer pane of a window tends to pop out because the fire has melted the frame. It’s important that at least the inner pane of a double paned window is tempered.
- Green roofs and solar PV should be considered in defensible space maintenance.
Southeastern Challenges and Opportunities
After Faraz’s enlightening talk, the group of southeast partners had a discussion about our region’s challenges and opportunities. Challenges included influencing development in the WUI landscape. It’s hard to compete with the drivers of development. Providing incentives for fire resistant materials and emergency vehicle accessibility could create change. An opportunity discussed was improving how we communicate to local residents about embers and their threat as they are the main source of home ignition. We also saw an opportunity to work more with science-based organizations to educate residents and encourage them to use the science to create safer communities.
Touring the IBHS Facility
In the afternoon, we were taken on a tour of the facilities with Chris Flynn, the General Manager of the IBHS Research Center. The 90-acre campus includes the large test chamber, a 145 feet by 145 feet by 70 feet concrete room. One side of the room contains an enormous wall of 105 fans that can create winds up to 130 mph (category 3 hurricane speed). IBHS is the only lab in the world that can test full-scale one- and two-story residential and commercial buildings in a controlled, repeatable fashion, according to their website.
Next to the test chamber is a field of roofs. The “roof farm” project tests decay and deterioration of roofing materials caused by severe weather, UV exposure, and temperature fluctuations. The campus has a small laboratory where they create artificial hailstones and fire them at roof shingles using a hail-firing cannon to see how they withstand the impact. A member of our group got to shoot a 60 mph hailstone at a wall of roof shingles. Other areas of the campus include a material drying shed, sensor testing and assembly room, and a construction workshop where they build the structures for research.
The Value of Learning Exchanges
Our visit to the IBHS center was an unforgettable experience. Hearing from wildfire researchers on the latest research and findings helps us better understand the factors that put homes at risk during a wildfire event. We can use this knowledge to better educate and assist our communities. This experience also gave us a chance to get out of the office and learn something new! Gathering regional partners to learn more about the science behind our work provides an opportunity for us to bounce ideas off of each other based on what we learned and our own experiences. We can share our perspectives and opportunities to enhance each others’ programs – the beauty of partnerships. Learning exchanges help solidify why we do the work that we do. With research and partners on our side, we can be more equipped to make positive change in our communities.