Photo Credit: Island Park Sustainable Fire Community recently used a Simtable modelling excercise to motivate and engage local residents; click on the image to learn more. Photo by Simtable

“WILDFIRE burns through Island Park community.”

That would have been the next morning’s headlines had Island Park Sustainable Fire Community’s sandtable wildfire simulation been real. This exercise was part of a recent workshop that kicked off a summer series, Are You Prepared for Wildfire. Not many Island Park residents are thinking about wildfire in April; they, like most Idahoans, are usually focused on snow melting, green grass and warmer temperatures. Nonetheless, about 40 Island Park residents participated in the half-day workshop.

During the workshop, Doug Cousin from Idaho Department of Lands conducted wildfire simulations on a computerized sandtable, simulating wildfire in two different areas of the Island Park community. The simulation included a tabletop sandbox model of the community, to show residents how fire could burn in their neighborhood. Folks gathered around the sandtable to observe the model fire, while others viewed the action projected on the wall. We ran scenarios near developments where the workshop attendees lived to make the message more meaningful to them. The flexibility of the computer program easily facilitated this aspect of the workshop. We ran two scenarios; one adjacent to Stonegate, a residential development with dense trees and homes, and one in Bills Island, a heavily forested neighborhood located on a small island in a reservoir. The Stonegate model’s weather parameters were 90 degrees, 8 mph winds and 15 percent humidity. The Bills Island parameters were 85 degrees, 15 mph winds and 20 percent humidity. Doug selected the ignition locations randomly. The model showed that in 18 hours, the fire burned most of the houses in Stonegate and that in four days, most of the homes in Bills Island were gone as well. The Bills Island fire also spotted across the reservoir and onto the mainland in another subdivision, something no one anticipated.


Watch the video above to learn more about Simtable wildfire simulations.

While the model fires were burning through Caribou-Targhee National Forest and Bureau of Land Management lands surrounding the neighborhoods, wildland firefighters described the suppression techniques that they would likely employ during fires like these. They explained where fire crews and fire engines would be placed and described the “anchor, flank and pinch” strategy. Using this strategy, instead of getting out in front of the flames, they would build a fireline around the fire perimeter. The fireline extended from their anchor point behind the fire and wrapped around the two sides, or flanks, of the fire in order to pinch it off before it reached the homes. In this theoretical situation, this tactic would not be successful, so retardant would then be ordered. During the discussion, we were reminded that retardant does not stop a fire; it slows fire down so that firefighters can get in front of it. Retardant deployed on a fire is useless unless there are hand crews or fire engines present to reinforce the retardant with other fire suppression tactics.

“My home was just burned up!” one resident exclaimed. And the conversations rolled from there.

There were lots of questions, concerns and discussion around fire suppression policy and what the responsibilities are for landowners, the rural fire district, the USDA Forest Service, Idaho Department of Lands and Bureau of Land Management. We discussed the county coroner’s role when residents do not escape the fire.

Participants compared evacuation route options, and many attendees asked, “What should I take with me when I leave?” One gentleman told his wife that the most important item to go with them was his fly tying gear! We then talked about Ready, Set, Go! concepts. There was a lot of joking and laughing, with an underlying realization that they were not prepared.

Dense forest

Dense forests surround the Island Park communities. Credit: Wendy Fulks, Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network

We recognized some things we should do differently during the next workshop, including:

  • Provide a brief overview of the sandtable program and its uses;
  • Use weather data from our local weather stations;
  • Provide an outline of the possible topics to be discussed;
  • Provide in-depth information on a few topics, rather than a bit of information on many topics. One participant equated the workshop to “drinking from a fire hose.”

Island Park Sustainable Fire Community will conduct at least two more workshops this summer, building upon this first one. As a part of the workshops, the Fire Learning Network will facilitate discussions with residents about their next steps. We hope to help them identify what they want to focus on regarding wildfire preparedness. The dialogue will also be an opportunity for them to decide if they will develop a fuels mitigation plan for their housing development, an evacuation plan or both. We also have plans to reach other homeowner groups using this method. By showing wildfire simulations within their neighborhoods, we can more effectively demonstrate risk and facilitate discussions to help more of the Island Park community prepare for wildfire.

Editor’s note: FAC Net does not endorse Simtable or any other for-profit enterprise.

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