Editors’ Note: Paula Nelson is the Executive Director of the Island Park Sustainable Fire Community (IPSFC) in Island Park, ID. The Island Park Sustainable Fire Community conducts home evaluations, free slash pick-up and educational opportunities to their community to help better prepare the region and its people for fire. Here Paula shares one of IPSFC’s recent educational events, a wildfire simulation exercise. Typically these events are done in person but with COVID-19 the group took the event to the virtual, interactive space using the latest in technology and found that even though they were behind screens the community members came together in a meaningful and impactful way.

In September of 2018, 20 years after the great Yellowstone Fires of 1988 threatened the resort town of Island Park, Idaho, an unattended campfire caused the Lyle Springs wildfire less than one mile south of Harriman State Park and less than one mile west of Pinehaven subdivision. The fire was pushed by wind that fanned the flames into the tops of the trees creating a very dangerous crown fire. Unlike grass fires, which burn low on the ground and can be put out by fire crews with water, crown fires are very difficult to suppress with traditional fire trucks and equipment. The Lyle Springs fire was on relatively flat ground and in 30+ year old lodgepole pine regenerated from past logging operations. The local Island Park volunteer fire department was the first on the scene and Harriman State Park supplied water for the firefighters to use. Residents of Harriman and Pinehaven were told to be READY in case they had to evacuate.

A helicopter drops water on top of a forest

Helicopter dropping water on Lyle Springs Fire. Photo by Tim Fuchs

Luckily, two water dropping helicopters and two water scooper planes were on a fire in nearby Teton County and were deployed to suppress the fire burning dangerously close to approximately 75 homes and the historic buildings of Harriman Ranch. As night fell, the wind slowed down, the relative humidity picked up, and the temperatures cooled off, allowing hand crews to finish the work of the tankers and contain the fire. In all, the Lyle Springs fire only burned about 80 acres, and the residents of Island Park were able to breathe a sigh of relief.

But what if the Lyle Springs Fire had not been contained?

The Lyle Springs fire represents things to come in Island Park and in many parts of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. It burned in conditions common in the Island Park Caldera: flat, windy and containing dense lodgepole pine with dry bottom limbs that can carry a fire from the grass up into the canopy where it is extremely difficult to suppress.  If helicopters and scooper planes had not been present at the time of this fire, there is a strong possibility that this fire would have made its way into the Pinehaven subdivision and Harriman State Park where many lives, structures and values were at risk! Island Park got lucky in 2018, but as the landscape becomes dryer and temperatures become warmer, luck is NOT going to be a strategy for sustaining the communities of Island Park.

The Island Park Sustainable Fire Community (IPSFC), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization founded in 2012, and their partners have been concerned with these types of wildfire prone landscape conditions for quite some time. IPSFC works with property owners each year on ways to create defensible space and harden their homes against wildfire in and around areas just like those areas that burned in Lyle Springs Fire.

In April of 2021, the Island Park Sustainable Fire Community brought together about 30 community members on Zoom to virtually experience the 2018 Lyle Springs Fire using videos generated by fire simulation and prediction technology from Simtable. Along with photos provided by the Neighborhood Fire Ambassador in Pinehaven, Tim Fuchs, and first-hand accounts from Jon White from the USFS and John Sullivan, retired Manager of Harriman State Park, participants watched as the fire started, grew in size, and was suppressed at only 80 acres. It was a very informative experience made real by this new technology.

Sand Table to Simtable to Interactive Video

A man points to a sand table while two other men overlook

A traditional ‘sand table’ as has been used for years to simulate wildfire behavior. Photo courtesy of author.

For years, many fire agencies have used a “sand table” to simulate wildfire behavior and to practice response scenarios. A sand table is comprised of sand, model trees, yarn to simulate roads and fire fronts, and toy cars and buildings. Using this visual tool, firefighting teams practice emergency responses actions for before, during and after a fire. Fire agencies continue to successfully use these sand tables to train firefighting personnel. 

A man in uniform points out a spot on a sand table simulation to another man.

Simtable being used to demonstrate the Camp Fire on 60 Minutes. Photo courtesy of SimTable Facebook.

In 2009, the “Simtable” was developed by Stephen Guerin as an interactive, three-dimensional simulation device intended to replace the traditional sand table for wildfire training and community education. This technology projects a digital map of any local neighborhood onto a bed of sand which replicates local terrain (mountains, valleys, rivers, etc.) and provides a three-dimensional surface. The electronic map displays current satellite imagery of local structures and roads along with overlays of wildland fuel types. In 2017, the IPSFC actually used a Simtable with a community group to educate property owners about home hardening, fuels removal and evacuation strategies. See the FAC Net blog: The Best Way to Get a Resident’s Attention: Burn Down Their Home (Through a Wildfire Simulation, Of Course)

Fast forward to 2020, COVID-19 and the need to do Simtable exercises and training with our communities virtually. Simtable had a solution for us. They have developed the ability to create fire simulation videos that can be shared electronically. While these videos lack the 3-D experience of the sand/terrain, they can be equally effective in communicating a wildfire’s behavior, exhibiting the need to harden your home and remove fuels from around structures and drive home the importance of planning for evacuation.

Simtable video screenshots of Lyle Springs Fire. Screenshots courtesy of the author.

Taking another look at the Lyle Springs Fire

So while the actual Lyle Springs Fire was suppressed at 80 acres and no lives or properties were lost, it could have been a much different outcome.

Using the Simtable video system, the simulation was run again. This time, no airplane support arrived, limited fire engines made it to the scene, the winds picked up, the humidity remained low and the fire crowned into the trees and blew devastating embers across Highway 20 into the Pinehaven Community. The fire continued to burn through the subdivision until it reached the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River at the eastern border of Pinehaven. The results are eye opening. No homes survived in this scenario and the fire descended into Pinehaven before the Sheriff even had a chance to drive back through to evacuate.

As the group watched a close-up video of the fire burning into Pinehaven, we see an ember fly across the highway and light the trees in National Forest land just behind Neighborhood Fire Ambassador Tim Fuch’s home. At this point, Tim shared his personal readiness and evacuation plan. Other folks at the meeting shared that years ago, Pinehaven had developed a Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) with readiness and evacuation plans, but as home ownership has turned over significantly, the plan is not widely known or used. Coming out of this conversation, members of the community made a plan to get together through their HOA, update the plan and get it distributed via email and through the Nextdoor App used by the community. This is a great example of the true power of gathering community members together and simulating wildfires: it brings forward the necessary conversations about preparing for wildfire events. Sharing the knowledge and witnessing a fire’s behavior is a catalyst to action.

a handrawn evacuation map

Neighborhood Fire Ambassador Tim Fuch’s Readiness and Evacuation Map. Drawing by Tim Fuch.

What if Pinehaven homes were hardened and fuels removed in each zone?

But we had one more Simtable video to share with the group. Before showing the video, IPSFC Outreach Representative, Susan Sullivan, took the group through a graphic discussing the Firewise Ignition Zones.

Then we inserted mitigation data into the simulation on several homes in the Pinehaven community. The data included home hardening values (fire resistant roofs and siding) fire resistant landscaping in the 5-30 foot zone, and reduced fuels out to 100 feet (limbed-trees, thinned canopy.) In this scenario, the simulated fire video clearly showed that, while the trees in the community burned, the “treated” homes did not. You could see many eyes opening following this exercise.

What’s next?

As we move into what is projected as a very dry summer, the IPSFC plans to host several more Simtable presentations for different communities and subdivisions in Island Park. We are also partnering with the Fire Service Technology department at the College of Eastern Idaho (CEI) to train several folks in June on how to use a physical Simtable with the community. After we train, CEI is going to lend us their portable Simtable to use with our communities once we can meet with people face to face again. Additionally, IPSFC will be first in line to purchase the Simtable software to create the videos we used in our April virtual presentation, once it’s available. IPSFC is excited about the many ways that this technology can be used to train community members, our volunteer fire department, our partners in the Forest Service and the county in making our community safer and more responsive to the dangers of wildfire.

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