Feb 11, 2021
Research in Resilience: A Day in the Life of Daniel Gorham
By: Daniel Gorham
Editor’s Note: Daniel Gorham is a research engineer at the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety. At the IBHS Research Center in South Carolina, Daniel and his colleagues are responsible for researching and better understanding how fire and other natural hazards damage and impact homes, buildings and businesses, and as importantly, what can be done to be better protected. Daniel brings a wealth of experience in wildland fire fighting and wildland-urban interface fire protection. FAC Net recently got a chance to catch up with Daniel and find out what it’s like to intentionally set a house on fire, how IBHS is helping homeowners and businesses be better prepared for wildfires and how practitioners can connect to IBHS’ latest research. Take a trip to the research lab with this Day in the Life of Daniel Gorham.
FAC Net: Tell us about yourself! What is your role with IBHS?
Daniel: My professional pathway has taken several turns in life but led me to my current role as a research engineer at the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS). My colleagues and I work to understand how natural hazard perils (high-wind, wind-driven rain, hail and wildfire) impact the built-environment. I’m extremely proud of how our work has real-world impact in that it ultimately helps make homes and communities more resilient to these natural hazards.
FAC Net: What is your background when it comes to wildfire?
Daniel: As a child I was enthralled with firefighters and wanted to be one; in fact, I had my fifth birthday at the local fire house. After high school I fulfilled my dream by joining a fire department which served a suburban/rural community. By way of the state park system (where I had worked as a summer lifeguard) I trained to become a wildland firefighter and joined the Maryland Wildfire Crew which deployed to the 2011 wildfires in New Mexico/Arizona. Fast forward to graduate school and I had the fortunate opportunity to spend the summer in Missoula, Montana working at the USDA U.S. Forest Service Fire Lab with the very scientists whose work inspired me to pursue wildland-urban fire protection research including Mark Finney and Jack Cohen. My experience and training in the suppression aspects of fire has been a tremendous foundation for the work I do now which focuses more on preparedness and resilience.
FAC Net: What role does IBHS have in helping create and support fire adapted communities?
Daniel: IBHS is dedicated to understanding the physical science of wildfire. Our research team looks at wildfire as a phenomenon and how wildfires interact with the built environment, so we can better understand how to prepare homes and businesses. The IBHS Research Center provides us the unique opportunity to recreate ember storms in the lab, to investigate the damage we see in the field and better understand how the real-world events play out. Using one-of-a-kind visuals from the lab, IBHS translates that research into actionable guidance for consumers at DisasterSafety.org.
In addition, just last year to help suburban communities adapt better to fire IBHS research laid out the path forward with our Suburban Wildfire Adaptation Roadmaps and Wildfire Ready guide. Programs like Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network also help create an opportunity for neighbors to identify areas for improvement and work with their community to address them.
FAC Net: What is it like to light structures on fire in the ember test center? How does it work?
Daniel: The IBHS Research Center is an engineer’s playground – if what you enjoy is recreating natural hazards and studying how they impact buildings. The ability to test full-scale buildings is important for understanding how wildland fires ignite homes and buildings. Our research approach often starts by identifying a component of the building, such as the roof, eave or deck, and developing a hypothesis for how they are vulnerable in different scenarios. After lots of planning and hard work by our construction team, we are able to put those theories to the test by recreating realistic wildland-urban fire conditions (video) with wind and embers. During the test through cameras and up close in person (wearing appropriate safety equipment) we are studying those building components we identified and how they interface with other components of the building (such as roof-wall interfaces at dormers). Tests can run a few minutes to a few hours; after they’re finished (and we’ve put out the fire!) it’s time to go back and analyze pictures, videos, and loads of data to understand why things happened the way they did so we can deliver solutions to the vulnerabilities.
FAC Net: You communicate research findings to the public as part of your role. What do you think is the most important of your findings for the public to know?
Daniel: I believe the most important findings from our research, which align with the work and findings of others, is twofold: first, the building is a system and only as strong (hardened) as the weakest link and second, wildfire resilience requires eternal vigilance. As an example, the immediate 5-foot home ignition zone around a building is critically important because embers will land here and if they ignite fuels (such as yard debris and dead plant material) the subsequent flames can impact the wall, windows and eaves which may ignite the entire structure – so thinking about resilience involves creating and vigilantly maintaining this area to resist ignition from embers, but also hardening the surrounding building components based on the potential fire scenarios.
FAC Net: What are the most challenging parts to communicate?
Daniel: Reducing the impact of wildfires on suburban communities requires teamwork. Wildfire risk to a homeowner is dependent on multiple aspects of the home as well as the actions of neighbors and of the community as a whole. Each home is a system with multiple vulnerabilities, so no single action alone will significantly reduce wildfire risk. One part of a home may be wildfire-resistant while another remains highly vulnerable leaving the structure, and neighboring homes, at risk. To have the greatest impact, homeowners should start by addressing the most vulnerable areas of the home and then continue with additional improvements paired with ongoing maintenance and debris removal. Meanwhile, wildfire risk must also be addressed across the neighborhood and across the community. We all must work together to drive down wildfire risk.
FAC Net: What do you think are the most important wildfire mitigation strategies and tasks someone should do to their home and property?
Daniel: At IBHS, we brought together a decade of our work in the field and in the lab with insights from the broader fire protection community to lay out the path to wildfire resilience for suburban communities into The Suburban Wildfire Adaptation Roadmaps. These Roadmaps detail the vulnerability of eight components of the home contributing to wildfire risk and choices to bring down their vulnerability. Translating the technical research into an actionable guide for homeowners, Wildfire Ready builds on the Suburban Wildfire Adaptation Roadmaps to progressively guide homeowners through key components of their home that can affect wildfire resistance, critical actions to take first and ways to further build resilience. Broken down into clusters of actions, Wildfire Ready offers three to four projects for homeowners to tackle at a time.
FAC Net: What research is on deck that you are most excited about?
Daniel: My colleagues and I have been extremely busy over the past few years working on research to improve resiliency to wildland-urban fire and have several upcoming projects that continue to address that. One project is in collaboration with the USDA Forest Service and our colleagues at the Missoula Fire Lab to understand how fire spreads through discontinuous fuels, like fuel breaks used during prescribed fires and around communities.
Another collaborative project will study the separation distances between buildings and develop guidance for how to reduce the potential for building-to-building fire spread. This will be a multi-year, multi-phase project with Cal Fire, U.S. Forest Service, NIST and others which will require a lot of hard work, but we believe will be a huge step forward towards suburban wildfire resilience.
FAC Net: How can practitioners better connect to the latest and greatest research?
Daniel: Follow along with IBHS (@disastersafety) on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn to see what we’re working on in the lab and in the field. Through our social media, practitioners can learn about the latest research and guidance, watch new videos from testing and engage with the research team. Also, explore the scientific side of IBHS’s wildfire work at ibhs.org/wildfire.
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To learn more about Daniel Gorham and his background, check out his bio on the IBHS website.
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