Topic: Emergency Response

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Desolation of the Black Dragon Fire (Heilongjiang)

During the month of May in 1987, one of the largest and most damaging wildfires on record globally, The Black Dragon Fire (Heilongjiang) in China reduced about 1/5th of Chinese coniferous forests by more than 3 million acres in the Heilongjiang Province to ash and burnt stumps and claimed at least 200 lives.  The fire started on May 6th on a hot dry day impacted by high winds in the Black Dragon River area of China. On the Russian side another 3 wildfires may have impacted up to 15 million acres. In Russia the river is called the Amur River.There is no record of a fire of this magnitude in the recorded history of 24 dynasties in China.  There was concern that the magnitude of the fire transformed continental climatic conditions contributing to the desertification of Northwest China.  According to recorded eye witness accounts of the fire in The Great Black Dragon Fire: A Chinese Inferno by Harrison E. Salisbury, the fire was like “a red sea wave. It sounded like an artillery barrage. It was the sound of terror. A tornado of fire.”  One young forester he quoted said; “Well, I guess you could say it sounded like the roar of a dragon.”  The cause of the fire was improper brush cutting by a newly hired inexperienced worker, though any spark would have started the fire with the lack of rain, heat and high winds in this area which had frequently experienced fires, though not of this magnitude.Image from the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction Website from GFMC archivesA colleague of mine at NFPA, Wenting Wang, told me that as a child lessons learned from the fire were taught to her in school in China. She said, “However, the Chinese government had learnt a lesson from the fire. The new completed system was set up to recover the forest.  Increased land has been fenced off for forestation. The population in forest and timber area has been decentralized and reduced substantially after the fire. A big progress has been made in reforesting formerly cultivated land. The NFPP (Natural Forest Protective Project) was started in 1998. After the effort of 20 years, the ecosystem has been restored. “   She also told me that a memorial museum was built in 1988 to show the process of the fire and the progress people have been made after the fire. Image from Haiku DeckWe can all learn a lesson from this fire and others, to take care doing the right thing the right way and implementing Firewise principles to protect our properties and communities.  Wildfires can occur anywhere in the United States.  A colleague shared an article about the wildfire potential in Massachusetts and lessons learned from the Miles Standish State Forest  Fire 61 years ago this week.  We can take action that makes a difference. 
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Doing the right thing the right way to prevent sparking a wildfire

Now that summer is upon us, we all want to do our part to keep our homes and properties safer in the event of a wildfire but it is so important to act carefully, taking the necessary precautions not to be the cause of a wildfire while trying to do the right thing.  Operating equipment like chainsaws, lawn mowers, and tractors improperly can cause sparks that could ignite a wildfire. We need to act with care to make sure that we are doing the right thing the right way.  A CAL FIRE flyer stated that over 1,600 wildfires are caused in California alone using equipment the wrong way.  You don't want to be the cause of a wildfire by using a mower improperly, like the Golden Gates Estate fire in Florida, or the 22 million dollar Oregon wildfire. Picture submitted for Wildfire Prep Day activity by Debora Rice from North Fork, California Here are some important tractor use and mowing tips to help you do the right thing the right way: (Remember metal blades hitting rocks can spark a wildfire) Mow during the cool time of day generally while there is still dew on the ground, not during the day and especially not when the wind is blowing. Don't top off fuel tanks. Make sure spark arrestors are in proper working order and there is no carbon build up. Keep a shovel and water source or fire extinguisher close by at all times. When transporting tractors, mowers and recreational vehicles make sure that chains on the trailers are not hitting the pavement as you are driving, throwing sparks. Take special care when using mowers and tractors in dry grass that can easily ignite. Remove rocks and metal from the yard that could be hit by the mower and cause sparks. Keep a cell phone with you and dial 911 in the event of an emergency. The US Forest Service (with their One Less Spark One Less Wildfire Campaign) along with Betty White created a cute YouTube video that reinforces how you can be more careful as you act responsibly this year while you work and play outside.
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Which mulch is the right mulch? Research on mulch and fire helps you decide!

Spring is almost here and time to get out and start doing some yard work. As I stand in front of all of the different types of mulch at my local home repair store, I can't decide which one to use. Which one will be the safest? Which one will last the longest? Which one will look the best the longest? Which one will be the safest? I know, I already mentioned that one but being a firefighter by trade, these things cross my mind -- a lot! There are many choices to use to beautify your landscaping. There are wood chips, pine bark, pine needles, shredded rubber and more. But which one is the safest? I asked an employee in the garden section if he knew of any fire spread ratings of any of the mulches in the store and he looked at me with a blank, faraway, confused look. So, I decided to look into this myself. Mulch has many positive attributes. It reduces the water requirements of plants, cools the soil temperature, controls weeds and soil erosion, and visually enhances the landscape. But a major drawback is that many are combustible, which presents a huge problem in fire prone areas. Embers from an approaching wildfire can ignite areas where mulch is used. If these areas are adjacent to the home, it could be wind up to be a disastrous mix. An evaluation of mulch combustibility was performed in 2008 by the Carson City Fire Department, the Nevada Tahoe Conservation District, the University of California Cooperative Extension, and the University of Nevada Cooperation Extension. The results from this project offer recommendations for uses of mulches in wildfire hazard areas. Mulch can be defined as any material that is used to cover the soil surface for a variety of purposes. They can be classified as organic or inorganic. Organic mulches usually come from plant materials and include pine needles, pine bark nuggets, shredded western cedar and even ground or shredded rubber. Inorganic mulches consist of rock, gravel and brick chips. These inorganic mulches tend not to burn and are safe to use in any setting. Eight mulch treatments were evaluated for three characteristics: flame height, rate of fire spread and temperature. On the test day, the National Fire Danger Rating System value was Extreme. All eight mulches were found to be combustible but varied considerably in the three areas measured. Shredded rubber, pine needles and shredded western red cedar showed the greatest potential for all three characteristics.  Shredded rubber burned at the hottest average temperature (in excess of 630 degrees F at a height of 4 inches) and produced the greatest flame length at over 3 feet. Shredded western red cedar had the most rapid rate of spread, traveling at an average rate of 47.9 feet per minute. It also produced embers that moved beyond the plot perimeter and ignited adjacent mulch plots. Composted wood chips showed the slowest spread rate and the shortest average flame length, usually smoldering. So what does all of this mean? We have a variety of mulch choices in our landscaping – and we need to know the best uses for each choice. Immediately next to your home out to five feet, the best mulch to use is an inorganic one (rock, brick, pavers) or fire resistant plant materials that are well watered and maintained. Composted wood chips are the best choice of the materials tested for residential landscape use. However, they are organic and will still burn. They do tend to burn at the lowest speed and lowest flame length. If this material is ignited, it could still ignite siding, plant debris and other combustible materials. The smoldering of this product could also go undetected by firefighters during a wildland fire event. Shredded rubber, pine needles and shredded western red cedar can have their place in your landscaping design, just further from your home. These materials could be used selectively for landscaping at least 30' from your home. So, with this new information that I have now learned about mulch, I think I'll use some nice gravel with a few larger stones for some accent close to my house and save the other stuff to use away from the house. You never know when a fire is going to approach your home and I don't want to lose the biggest investment I'll ever make. Photo: A home in Rockland County, NY, damaged by fire starting in mulch in flower beds, from a white paper, "Mulch Fires: What Should the Label Say," by Thomas Williams and Michael Lane, at Vermont Chapter of International Association of Arson Investigators
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Make Sure Emergency Evacuation Planning is Part of Every Student's IEP

I had a media call last week from a reporter who wanted to know what information we had on school fire drills for students with disabilities - especially those students in wheelchairs. NFPA has created a guide to help students with disabilities, teachers, administrators, parents, and others lookat some of the issues that are relevant to a student's ability to evacuate a building in the event of an emergency. Preplanning emergency evacuation for every student with a disability should be as important as the language arts support the child requires in order to reach his or her full potential. Every parent of a child with an IEP (Individual Education Program) should print out Personal Emergency Evacuation Planning Tool for School Students with Disabilities (when you go to this link, scroll down the page to "For public educators" and you will find the student planning guide), bring it to your school and have your child's IEP team complete the guide. The guide provides a checklist that includes the student's personal evacuation plan. Things included are the student's schedule (day, time, room), emergency notification device needs, a plan to evacuate the student from the building, type of assistance needed, assistants assigned to help the student and information on service animal needs. This guide should be completed for every student with an IEP and become part of the student's program which is reviewed at least once a year. In addition to parents advocating for inclusion of this guide in a student's IEP, the local fire department can play an important role. I challenge fire departments to meet with school officials, provide a copy of Personal Emergency Evacuation Planning Tool for School Students with Disabilities (when you go to this link, scroll down the page to "For public educators" and you will find the student planning guide) and encourage the school system to include this important information as part of every student's education plan. Let me know if you are able to make evacuation planning available for every child who receives special education and related services.
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