Author(s): Fred Durso. Published on September 1, 2011.

Tech Angle
NFPA’s Backyards & Beyond Conference emphasizes technological advancements in wildfire mitigation and preparedness.

NFPA Journal®, October 2011

By Fred Durso , Jr.

The key to truly understanding the worldwide wildfire phenomenon — and ways to mitigate its damage — may rest with technology. Education sessions at NFPA’s fourth Backyards & Beyond Wildland Fire Education Conference, scheduled for October 27–29 in Denver, Colorado, delve into recent high-tech developments, as well as other advancements in wildfire emergency management, firefighting operations, and NFPA’s Firewise® Communities Program. The following is a sampling of some of the conference’s five educational tracks that include more than 50 education sessions. For session times and locations, as well as up-to-the-minute information on the event, visit


The 2011 Backyards & Beyond Wildland Fire Education Conference will be held October 27–29 in Denver, Colorado. For more information, visit 

Discovery in the digital age  
Ready to assess your home’s risk of ignition from wildfire? New software developed for the Department of Homeland Security by the Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina evaluates a structure’s ignition potential based on its makeup and immediate surroundings. The conference’s special presentation, "Wildfire Ignition Resistant Home Design," on October 27 offers a demonstration on the new program that will be released for free early next year. "Assessing Home Ignition Potential in the Wildland-Urban Interface" on October 28 will highlight research that spurred this technology. For instance, the Institute for Business & Home Safety’s (IBHS) Research Center in South Carolina has been intentionally burning test homes with wind-driven embers to further analyze structural devastation.

Getting a handle on wildfires affecting larger areas, Tom Patterson from the Environmental Systems Research Institute, which develops geographic information system (GIS) technology that analyzes environmental concerns, will discuss the development of mobile GIS devices and mapping capabilities. His session, "Evolution of Real-Time Mapping in Disaster Management," on October 28 highlights geospatial technology providing timely information to all parties responding to wildfires.

Steve Quarles, session presenter and IBHS scientist, is certain technological advancements will play a crucial role in mitigating wildfire damage. "Research will continue to update existing tools based on what we and others learn about the vulnerabilities of homes to wildfire," he says. "With better tools, homeowners can become more certain about the vulnerable parts of their home and the areas that need to be addressed."

The firefighter perspective
Over the past few years, more than 150 firefighters have died fighting blazes that raced through communities and decimated swaths of land. "Fire Fighter Safety in the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI)" on October 28 identifies unique fire suppression techniques that are becoming necessary lessons as more people move into wildland areas. Also on October 28, "Wildland-Urban Interface Fires From a Fire Fighter’s Point of View" discusses case studies underscoring the limitations and capabilities of structural and wildland firefighters.

Also on October 28, Chief Rich Graeber of the Upper Pine River Fire Protection District in La Plata County, Colorado, presents "A Fire Department’s Approach to Achieving Mitigation Around Homes" with the idea of sparking dialogue between communities and their local fire service. Using his community as an example, Graeber explains how his team effectively connected with residents to explain how fuel mitigation can safeguard their property.     

Preventive practices 
One of the hottest topics at this year’s conference is defensible space, or specific parcels of land intended to protect other areas and structures from encroaching wildfires. A handful of sessions address this issue, including "Increasing Defensible Space Practices Among Homeowners" and "Ready, Set, Cut! Rethinking Tree Care Within Defensible Spaces" on October 28. Also, discover the 15 common reasons that prevent homeowners from implementing these practices during "Excuses & Motivation: How to Change Behaviors for a More Fire-Safe Interface" on October 27.

Defensible space, however, is only a component of a community’s readiness. Effective emergency preparedness through proper code enforcement, public education, and other mitigation activities are equally important, and are the focus of "Proactive Hazard Mitigation Tools and Educating the Public" on October 28. The presentation highlights steps taken by Borger, Texas, the first U.S. city officially recognized as a Firewise Community.

Firewise for all ages       
You’re never too young to start learning about NFPA’s Firewise principles, which are aimed at preventing homes and communities from succumbing to wildfires. "Firewise in the Classroom" on October 27 outlines a lesson plan established at a grade school in Lassen County, California, and its effect on community-wide wildfire preparedness. Engaging children in two wildfire education programs — one in particular trains students on GIS technology to analyze their community’s wildfire risks — is the focus of "Involving Youth in Spreading the Firewise Message" on October 29. For the young at heart, NFPA staff will present a session on October 28 about effectively disseminating Firewise messaging via social media sites and the Web.

Also, on October 29, NFPA’s Michele Steinberg and U.S. Forest Service scientist Jack Cohen will discuss the evolution of Firewise during their special presentation, "From an Idea to a National Movement: Firewise Communities/USA® — 10 Years Young," commemorating the more than 700 communities that have officially adopted Firewise principles.