How Building Materials Make a Difference in Disasters with Alister Watt and Daniel Gorham
“We know that we’re not powerless against wildfires. It’s a question of, ‘what are the steps? What are the actions that really make a difference?'” -Alister Watt
“Wildfire doesn’t acknowledge boundaries— we need to be thinking about resilience and preparedness with that in mind.” -Daniel Gorham
When it comes to disasters, building materials are not just useful—they’re essential. Every time we build something that can help prevent fires from happening or spreading, we’re influencing how wildfire impacts our properties and the community we live in.
The Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS), an independent, 501 (C) nonprofit scientific research and communications organization, works to provide practical solutions to build more resilient communities.
This week, we are joined by the organization’s Chief Product Officer Alister Watt and Research Engineer, Daniel Gorham to talk about how our choice of building materials can make a difference during a disaster. They also help us understand the trend of fires in the wildlands vs urban communities, how the layout of an environment influences the extent and gravity of a disaster’s impact, why we need to change our view of aesthetics, what ember casts are and how to prevent them from entering our homes, and how Wildfire Prepared, a project of IBHS, can help us get better insured.
- 02:13 Meet Alister and Daniel and Their Work with IBHS
- 06:29 Understanding the Trend: Wildland vs Urban Fires
- 12:09 Rural Community Fire vs Condensed Fire
- 17:42 The Role of Insurance in Disaster Preparedness
- 21:04 A Change Needed in Our View of Aesthetics
- 24:50 It’s All About Ember
- 30:24 How to Prevent Embers From Entering Our Homes
- 39:37 We Are Not Powerless Against Wildfires
- 45:13 Recreating Hazards: What Happens “During”
- 49:53 Spend More to Build It Right
- 52:58 The Benefits of Being Prepared
It’s better to spend more to build it right than spend less to just see it ignite. Learn how building materials make a big difference in disasters with @JenGrayThompson and @disastersafety‘s Chief Product Officer Alister Watt and Research Engineer, Daniel Gorham. #Recover #Rebuild #Reimagine #NorthBay #podcast #wildfire #DisasterRecovery #DisasterRecovery #AfterTheFire #Season4 #HowToDisaster #IBHS #wildfiretrends #embercast #emberresistant #homehardening #insurance
06:56 “The idea that all wildfires are bad is part of the paradigm shift.” -Daniel Gorham
10:31 “We’re not going to prevent that conflagration fire, we can reduce the likelihood. And one of the best ways to do that is to reduce the potential that any given home ignites.” -Daniel Gorham
16:06 “Wildfire doesn’t acknowledge boundaries— we need to be thinking about resilience and preparedness with that in mind.” -Daniel Gorham
22:54 “There’s a little bit of a failure of imagination, which is people’s natural resistance to change.” -Alister Watt
27:37 “The core of a lot of wildfire mitigation programs is reducing the likelihood of home ignites and because embers are calling the majority of these ignitions, making your home and the area around it ember-resistant [is important].” -Daniel Gorham
37:46 “Green grass and the right conditions can burn. What you would expect to not burn vegetation can transition to something that can be a wick, a pathway for the flames to spread up to your home.” -Daniel Gorham
40:00 “We know that we’re not powerless against wildfires. It’s a question of, ‘what are the steps? What are the actions that really make a difference?'” -Alister Watt
43:08 “Wildfires are a little more manageable than wind and rain because we’re not trying to hold back the sea in the sky. But there’s a lot of collaborative modeling that has to go into solving the issue.” -Jennifer Thompson
48:59 “We actually need national people who have the skill sets, the science, the wherewithal, and services to not lean out, but instead lean in because this is the reality of what’s happening.” -Jennifer Thompson
52:52 “If you are prepared, you can be calm, and it might even give you the extra opportunity to take some mitigations before you leave.” -Jennifer Thompson
Alister Watt joined IBHS in 2018, bringing 25 years of strategy consulting and management experience across public and private sectors. Alister has worked in financial services, risk management, broadcast media, and fast-moving consumer goods.
As the Chief Product Officer, Alister leads the efforts to translate IBHS’s top-tier science into action. In addition to his enterprise-wide leadership role, Alister is responsible for several critical IBHS program areas, including FORTIFIED, media, product design, and technology.
Mr. Watt has led large and small teams across the U.S., Europe and former Soviet Bloc. In these diverse roles, Alister brought structure to problem-solving, creativity to developing solutions, and rigor to implementing change. Prior to his work at IBHS, Alister’s career has spanned independent consulting, consulting for Accenture, Coray Gurnitz Strategy Consulting and Acquisition Solutions, and project management for Mars, Inc.
A Scot by birth, Alister earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Aberdeen, and subsequent to emigrating to the U.S., he earned a Masters of Business Administration from the Tuck School at Dartmouth College.
Dan brings to IBHS a wealth of science and engineering experience in the wildfire peril. Most recently, Dan was the Research Project Manager for the Fire Protection Research Foundation in Quincy, Massachusetts. He has also spent time with the National Fire Protection Association, and was a Guest Researcher at the U.S. Forest Service Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory.
Dan holds both a master’s and bachelor’s degree in Fire Protection Engineering from the University of Maryland College Park. His background in fire and life safety include experience as a firefighter/EMT in the state of Maryland.
Connect with IBHS:
The Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) is an independent, 501 (C) nonprofit scientific research and communications organization supported by property insurers, reinsurers, and affiliated companies. IBHS’s building safety research leads to real-world solutions for home and business owners, helping to create more resilient communities.
Connect with Wildfire Prepared:
Connect with Disaster Safety:
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We’re back for another episode of The How to Disaster Podcast where we help you recover, rebuild and reimagine.
Today, we have a special episode with two guests from IBHS, the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety. Joining us will be the Chief Product Officer Alister Watt, and Daniel Gorham, the Chief Research Engineer. IBHS does some incredible work with scientific research and innovation to strengthen structures in the event of disasters. They have experienced the wind and rain seismic, and now, wildfire. They actually have a research facility that is on the East Coast, and it actually shows in real time how to make communities much safer. In the space of wildfire, we actually haven’t quite had enough of this science done yet. And I’m so pleased that they have a new program about home hardening and how to actually really give your home a chance of surviving a wildfire. We asked them on the podcast today because I wanted you to learn all about their really important work. And to make sure that you visit their website, which we will also link below. You know on their website, sometimes a video is the most powerful thing that you could possibly have. And I have spent a lot of time watching their videos on ember casts and how these fires actually spread so fast, so hot and create so much destruction. So I’m really pleased to have them on the show today, and I hope that you learn a lot. And if you have further questions, we will also provide their contact information so you can reach out directly. I want to thank you again for spending your time with us on The How to Disaster Podcast.
So once again, I’m so excited, IBHS on The How to Disaster Podcast. Welcome, guys. Can you please actually introduce yourself? What is IBHS? Talk about your work before we get into our conversation.
Daniel Gorham: Yeah. Good afternoon, or good morning to speak with you Jennifer. My name is Daniel Gorham. I’m a Research Engineer here at IBHS. We look at lots of different perils. But my background and focus is on the wildfire peril, and how it impacts the built environment.
Alister Watt: And good afternoon, my name is Alister Watt. I’m the Chief Product Officer. My job is to take all the research and turn it into products guidance, mitigation programs, education and try to advance our vision, which is to prevent avoidable loss severe weather that disrupts families that drives financial loss and it disrupts lives. And so we try and take out talk to your signs, turn it into these programs so we can avoid some of that suffering.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I love that. Before we get into the wildfires, specially, I want people to be aware of your website and how fun it is to actually nerd out there on your amazing videos and your research facility. Can you talk about that briefly?
Daniel Gorham: Absolutely. So if you really want to nerd out and read some of the detailed research reports or get linked to some of the peer reviewed journals, that would be ibhs.org. And again, you can see different web pages for the four core perils that we focus on. That’d be high wind, tornadoes and hurricanes, wind driven rain, hurricanes, severe convective storms and the hailstones that they create, and wildfire. So we have those four core perils, and you can look at previous research and some of the outreach that we’ve done there. That’s ibhs.org. And for people that are maybe more homeowner and they live in an area that is prone to hail storms, and they want to take actions to be more prepared, more resilient, they can go to disastersafety.org that takes the same research at ibhs.org, and kind of translates into something that a homeowner would be able to digest maybe a weekend project and disaster safety is going to have those. What you can do this weekend and some DIY stuff. But all of it is really based on the research that we do here, recreating the hazards and translating them to actionable things that people can do to be more resilient.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: One of the things that I love about IBHS is that I’ve been working in this space for about five years non stop and the understanding of how these perils work is so much of it is anecdotal. And like you just there seems to be sometimes a disconnect between the scientific community that’s talking about it up here, and then that relationship to the people who are boots on the ground have to carry it out or somehow understand. I just really want to applaud IBHS because I feel like you all really bridge that gap, and you bring that scientific credibility but also relatability to the subject. I assume that that is part of your mission.
Alister Watt: It is. That’s exactly the mission of the product organization. So we like to bring people into the panel as we talked about and let them experience say that we do that with our members on multi day events. We call them disaster dynamics academies. That kind of fun, people get to play with hail, they get to play with wildfire within restriction. And also, we go out in the community. So we work with other not for profit organizations to get the message out. We have brown bag lunches and training, and we’ll go on tours with the media to try and get everyone to understand our current messaging.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And so just quickly for your membership model, who becomes a member of IBHS?
Alister Watt: So we are verifiable 13C, we are entirely funded by the property insurance industry. So about 85%, 90% of the industry supports us.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And one of the reasons that we actually like that is because sometimes, the insurance industry knows we’re dealing with these mega fires. We haven’t had fires before, but we’ve had mega fires before. But this era of mega fires over the past five years in particular has been so discombobulating for the insurance industry for the people, first and foremost, the wildfire survivors and the communities that we serve. So let’s go ahead and get into this sort of new era of mega fires, and let’s talk about some of the research that you’ve learned. And then I want to go into some of the simple things that people can do that five foot roll rule, for example, to actually least give themselves a shot. Let’s start there with the era of mega fires. Can one of you speak to that?
Daniel Gorham: Yeah. I can speak to that a little bit. First of all, acknowledging that fire and wildland fire is very much a natural phenomena. I’m not an ecologist, but I know some very intelligent ones. And they talk about how ecosystems have evolved over millennia to need fire. One of the classic examples is pine cones that actually need the heat of low intensity fires to open up. And when pine cones open, the seeds come out, and they germinate. And that’s how trees spread. So the idea that all wildfire is bad, I think is part of the paradigm shift. When we think about mega fires, and again, that goes into the lineage of Smokey the Bear and the most effective ad campaign ever known, only you can prevent wildfires. And then as we think about fires over the past several decades, again, not being a Fire Ecologist myself, but we can clearly see a trend in larger fires, not any given fire, but the total acreage burned. And then the impact that those larger fires can have on high value resources like homes, like communities. And that’s how you think about a fire burning in Alaska, you may not know about it, it could burn 200,000 acres you’d never know. But a 2,000 acre fire in a high dense neighborhood like California or in Colorado, and it destroys hundreds of homes, that catches our attention. I think that’s some of the shift as we think of this natural phenomena of wildland fire turning into these mega wildfires that have these devastating and catastrophic impacts on us as humans.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think that it’s so important for people to understand that traditionally, mega fires have meant over 100,000 acres. But really now, the definition is expanded for it having an outsized impact on a community. They burned so hot and so fast because of fuel load on the ground, mega droughts, all these other parts that go into it. And really importantly, for decades, and decades, and decades, we’ve been suppressing wildfire. I mean, I’m hoping somebody reimagined Smokey the Bear at any point. I’ve been ready for this for years. So instead of what we heard was no wildfire ever, and I don’t think that was the intent. But that’s actually how it translated into the general public. So I’m looking forward to that. Let’s talk about like, there’s a difference between when you have, and we work in the marshal fire in Colorado, and a lot of those homes were on 4,000 square foot lots, maybe 7,000 and very close together. It’s very hard. They’re having a long conversation right now between the residents who are unable to afford to build back unless they do not institute some of the home hardening measures, or that’s what they believe. And those who are saying, I won’t build back next door to you unless you do. So let’s start with suburban fires, then I want to get into the more rural and then frontier wildfires because it’s really three very different types of recoveries.
Daniel Gorham: Yeah. I’ll speak to the marshal fire as part of a post disaster investigation team. I was out there in the Boulder area on January 22 to look at some of the damage and areas impacted by it. And I saw some of those high density communities that you’re likely referring to, and you would think about those as very much the urban environment. Those fires were less wildland urban fires and more urban conflagrations Now, surely you know those first homes ignited because of this outside fire, this wildfire. But once you got a couple of homes burning in that high density, you talked about homes as close as 10 feet neighbor to neighbor. If you have one home burning, your local fire department is probably prepared to come and suppress that. But once you have 2, 5, 10, and they’re dealing with evacuations, and there’s so many other things, you get that building to building fire spread. And this is not just a wildland fire challenge. There’s post earthquake fires, there’s fire following earthquakes. So there’s this phenomena of urban conflagrations that can be caused by wildfires, but being caused by other things and to the point of thinking about building back and living in that area where that can happen. I think one of the things I like to impart is that we’re not going to prevent that conflagration fire. We can reduce the likelihood. And one of the best ways to do that is to reduce the potential that any given home ignites. Because if you don’t have the first home ignite, you don’t need to think about that scenario, or the likelihood of that scenario is much less than you’re going to have 2, 5, 10 burning, and then you get that mass fire that comes from a conflagration fire.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: One of the things that I’m on a mission to is really educate people about the difference between the type of fire you see in Colorado that didn’t burn that long, it was under 24 hours, most damage was done in the first 12 hours, 11,008 homes, half a billion dollars just in the first day alone. Nevermind the secondary smoke impacts all of those things. It was a grassland fire, for those of you who don’t know. It’s that perfect storm of 10 months of drought, and a grassland fire starts. And then really high weird hot winds, which is what we had here in Sonoma County where I live the night of the Tubbs fire which had 11 fires that broke out that night. But the largest one was the Tubbs fire that took out a similar, very condensed community. So it’s that transmission from house to house. And then we’re gonna get into ember cast in just a minute, because that’s what’s really like the thing they all seem to have in common no matter what. When you look at a town like Paradise, and the fire is there, that’s actually a very large rural community. 27,000 people they lost, they rebuilt about 10% of their homes, almost four years on. There are different challenges there. But can you talk about the difference between a more rural community fire and a more condensed fire?
Daniel Gorham: Yeah, absolutely. And I think one of the first things that comes to mind is thinking about just the pre fire. The normal operating conditions in a rural community, you probably have some more remote roads, you have smaller road widths, and you have some longer driveways as opposed to an urban environment where you’re getting from your driveway to the highway in two minutes. It’s not like that in a town like Paradise and those are in the non fire conditions. And though you kind of translate that to when you have a fire and you have challenges with not just only egress people getting out but access for fire trucks coming in. And that’s one of the things that you think about for preparedness is how wide are the roads, how many fire stations you have, how and where can they respond. And so that is you pointed out, that’s one of the differences between an urban situation like we saw in the incorporated towns in the Marshall fire, as opposed to the town of Paradise impacted by the 2018 Camp fire is just the layout of the built environment. And then really using that as an example of, if I can, wildland urban interface WUI that interface is kind of this line of demarcation of one side of it is wildland, and the other side of it is urban is really, in my opinion, no perfect example of that. But I think some of those townships in the Marshall fire are pretty good examples of that. If you juxtapose that to Paradise, which is much more an intermix, right? There is so much wild land intermixed with the built environment, and so the fire development and all those other things are different there.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: They are different. And then there’s the third scenario too. And then I will come back to you all started to talk about, why would IBHS so interested in this? And why is it really important to actually have insurance and reinsurance at the table of this problem? Because I do want to get into that. But let’s go back quickly and look at what a frontier fire is like Greenville and the Dixie fire last year burned almost a million acres. It was 965,000 acres by the time it was done. Took out the town of Greenville, which was 821 residents, but really burned for three months and was not declared a federal disaster until about 750,000 acres were burned largely because of the issues you were talking about earlier. Which was we base our natural disasters not on air quality, but instead on structures and lives loss like that. It’s just a different thing. We’re working on that. Everyone’s working on that. But you get a frontier fire in these small towns that are actually sitting in the middle of these national forests. To be clear, we do not say anything about who lives there. People have lived there for generations. That’s what we see. Multi generational housing often that is uninsured because they do not have mortgages anymore. So that’s a whole different issue. But can you talk to some of what you’re seeing in fires like Greenville, or what’s just happened in Yreka yesterday, here in California?
Daniel Gorham: Yeah. I think the thing that I would say to that is, think about the land use. And I think that the Dixie fire is a great example. It is a town, a city essentially within surrounded by federal Lands, National Forest. And so who has jurisdiction of doing the things that feel when we talk about defensible space immediately around the home. We’ll talk more about how embers are gonna land there, and why it’s important to make that as Ember resistant as possible because we know embers are gonna land there. But if you think about a wildfire that is oftentimes burning, and vegetation, and if you can reduce the intensity of the wildfire as it burns up to a community, yes, you’re still going to get that ember cast. But if you have an ember resistant zone and class, a roof and all of the things to your home, you’re likely going to resist the ignition from those embers. But if you don’t have control over the fuel management around your community, even on your property 30 feet away, you might have a very high intensity wildfire to no fault of yours. But that’s just the case of it. I think that that’s a good example to recognise that a wildfire doesn’t acknowledge boundaries. This is federal responsibility area, and state responsibility, and look for responsibility area, fuels, fuels, fuel. And so while we, as a society had developed those to help us with things, we need to recognise that fire, the physical phenomena does it. And so maybe we need to be thinking about resilience and preparedness with that in mind.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I love that because I think there’s a real equity opportunity to actually help people in rural America who are holding so much of the naturally occurring affordable housing. If 20% of our land is occupied by 80% of our population, then the inverse is also true. 80% of land in this country is occupied by 20% of the population. And you ended up very general, I’m sure the numbers are slightly upside down on that, but not by much. Then there is an opportunity to look at rural communities and say thank you for actually achieving what we are spending billions if not trillions on and more suburban urban areas, which is affordable housing. And we can look at naturally occurring affordable housing and find ways and incentives to actually help people who are often not high income at all harden their own homes, and at least stand a chance, while we’re also mitigating the risk from our wild lands. And like that sort of collaborative effort, which is one of the reasons why it is important to have insurance, the table and algebra, if you can just talk about, what is the role of insurance and actually through IBHS, which is a nonprofit, to be clear. But really to sort of tackle this problem using science, and data, and mapping, and all the tools that you bring to the table.
Alister Watt: Yeah, thank you. So we do see strictly in the science lane when there’s an antitrust laws that we have to observe, but I will talk generally about we care, our members care about accessibility and affordability of insurance. And that’s one of the reasons why this facility was stood up to bring that sign so that the risk curve makes things more affordable, more predictable against severe weather. So in the case of wildfire, IBHS had really resisted a little bit getting into mitigation programs because it’s harder parallel to manage than just wind that you can just apply math to and engineer accordingly. But after the fires that we’ve just discussed, our members came to us and said, we need a mitigation program. Please design one that was in the fall last year. And then we launched our program in June, as you know, in Paradise.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Oh, why don’t you go ahead and talk about that program really quickly. I mean, you guys, it’s pretty cool. And it’s actually one of our board members that we have up in Paradise, Casey Taylor. She’s the Executive Director of Achieve Charter Schools. Really dynamic, smart woman. And so talk about your project there in Paradise.
Alister Watt: Yeah, we love meeting Casey. She’s got a lot of energy, a lot of vision and some great experience. So we were happy that she got the first ever designation in this first ever wildfire mitigation designation program. And what that means is you get a certificate if you comply with all of the requirements of the program, and the requirements are not easy to achieve. They are achievable, but it is not something that you’re going to do in an hour. You’re gonna have to be intentional about it. You have to be intentional about what you do with your vegetation, you’re gonna have to be intentional about what noncombustible things you bring close to the house, you’re gonna have to be intentional about how you maintain your trees and how close things like wood fences are. We’ll talk more about the science behind that. The program works where you can go online to wildfireprepared.org, it is.org. And you can take a free assessment. There’s a bunch of cool resources there so you can learn about the program, learn more about IBHS, you can take a free assessment. So there are two levels of designation, and there’s one that’s designed for a retrofit, which is the majority of the building stuff. And then the other designation, which is harder to achieve is the plus designation, and that’s designed for new builds. There’s very little difference in cost. And then we’ll probably talk a little bit about that. If you’re going to build and you choose to build plus level, you’re not gonna have to incur much more cost, if any. It’s just a question of material selection. So you’ll go through, you’ll take a free assessment. If you think that you meet all the requirements, and it is every single one of those requirements, that kind of a system of litigation rather than a menu of mitigation. We believe that we don’t need to have any weak links. And so if you achieve everything, then you’re making sure there are no weak links. Then you pay an application fee, which offsets our quality assurance. And our inspection costs $125. And then we’ll send an inspector out, you’ll get a bunch of emails from us. And once you’ve met all the requirements, you’ll get a very nice certificate that you can take to your insurance company and negotiate with them.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Let’s just say that, because again, you are a nonprofit. You are not here advocating for any particular private company or anything like that. We’re a nonprofit, as well so I understand the parameters there. But one of the things that is very striking is a couple of things like we do have to change our view to do this. I just have to change our view of aesthetics a little bit because ever since I was watching the video about Casey’s house, and I’m looking at my own, I’m like, I got to do that. I have to actually remove all the landscaping within five feet of my home. And I don’t mind. I’m amazed that we have a chipper program. I was just talking to our Podcast Producer about this that actually remove some of the garbage. I called it garbage like understory in the forest, or on private land. But then we actually give it to people to put all around their house, which is a fire hazard, which is such a big no, no, well intentioned. But just on the back end is a little knock on it. So what I’m hoping is that over the next couple of years, that the insurance companies actually started to really incentivize homeowners, especially all of them everywhere, but also to look at suburban communities. I live in a planned urban development. Our houses are 10 feet apart that allows for more than one home or even can provide like block by block coverage for what might be possible because I can do all of those things. But my house is just so close that I might be in fact be the only house standing. Then I have to decide, is that what I want to so. Challenges are there, but I’m glad that there is a place for the science to actually sit to really get to the other side of the problem, which in some ways about policies.
Alister Watt: Just going back to your point on aesthetics. I think there’s a little bit of a failure of imagination which is people’s natural resistance to change. I’ve seen some really artistic and impressive examples of putting in mitigation for this welfare program that I’ve seen metal gates that are not just something that you would pick up at a large box retailer. These are like custom made, they’re almost works of art. And so I think there’ll be a migration from putting dense foliage up right up against your house into more artistic representations, and different materials that are non combustible. I can imagine that Southern California may lead the way in that.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think you’re absolutely correct. And we’re gonna do a remodel in our backyard next year. I’m talking to my husband now, because I want aluminum gates, I don’t want any wood touching the house. And so we’re going to institute a lot of the things that you have scientifically proven work well and can do it. And I said, even though we may be the first people on the block to do it, maybe if people can see that it is a different aesthetic, that it’s possible. And part of my inspiration also comes from my mom built a home in 2009 up on St. Alena Mountain, which was everything around there was burned over by the 2020 Glass Fire. It is really bad. But her house remains because she had an inadvertently built way of code. She didn’t have an attic. She wasn’t subject to ember casts. Her barn which was 10 feet away, that was wood, that totally burned down. She had sold the house before it, to be clear. But the house itself stood because it didn’t have venting. Didn’t have an attic to vent in. And so let’s go back and talk about, what’s up with embers? Why our embers sort of like, for us, we see them as like central to the issue of how we can get through this from a scientific perspective.
Daniel Gorham: Yeah, absolutely. I would say a lot of times, it’s all about the Ember. So I think the first thing is, what is it that branched that question? I imagine a lot of people might have been sitting there around a campfire, a fireplace, and you see those, the burning logs and the orange flames, and you see this glowing orange particle rise up and it’s getting lifted up by the buoyant flames and don’t go in that detail. But just imagine that glowing little particle. What that is? It’s a piece of fuel, it’s a piece of that log that broke off, and it has enough energy. That’s the glowing orange or red color that you know is hot, and you wouldn’t want it to touch your skin.
And so on a small fire, and maybe that’s a little tiny thing, and a couple feet above the fire and essentially burnt out. In a wildland fire, you have larger fuels, you have logs, you have pine cones, you sometimes have structures, and you have a larger fire which is able to generate more upward force, and so you can get physically larger embers and you can have a lot lot more of them. You can see some of these videos during these wildfires. And a lot of times, firefighters might have helmet cams so that can give you an inside look of what’s going on. You see this entire cast of embers, the sky is essentially filled with them. They’re traveling along the road, along the ground, they’re traveling through the air, they’re landing on and around homes. And you talked about vents. Vents being a pathway for embers to get in. So remember, embers were those blowing things, they had the potential to ignite. If you have a vent that allows those larger embers in, and you have something combustible, say in your attic, maybe that’s where you store your decorations, that ember land in it. That starts a small little fire, that smoldering fire transitions to a flaming fire. And one of the other things is that attic fires are really challenging.
So again, you gave the example of an attic fat, and that’s a known pathway that we know we’ve replicated in the lab. We see in the field a lot is that embers can get into the structures through vents and ignite something, and start small little fires that ultimately ignite a home. I’ll give you two statistics at the same number we attribute up to 90% of home ignitions to embers. So that’s the vast majority. We’ll talk a little bit about direct ember additions and indirect ignitions, but acknowledging that embers are the leading cause of home ignitions. And also, when a home ignites the likelihood that is destroyed is about 90% that is there are very few damaged homes and not destroyed homes. In a wildfire, you have some line of a seemingly unaffected homes, and then you maybe have one or two damaged homes, and then you have hopefully not too many but lines of destroyed homes, and that’s the binary net damage mode of wildfire. If your home ignite, if a home ignite, it’s most likely to be destroyed. Embers causes ignitions. That’s really the backbone, that’s the core of wildfire prepared home. That’s the core of a lot of wildfire mitigation programs is reducing the likelihood of home ignites. And because embers are calling the majority of this ignitions making your home in the area around it and the resistance.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I have to confess that before 2017, I had never given one thought to embers but they became like the boogeyman of everything bad that happened here because they can move miles ahead. People have to understand that in this space, if you have the right wind conditions and the right amount of fuel on the ground and the pathway, wildfires love a creek way. It’s like a superhighway. In our case in 2017, the Tubbs Fire moved about a football field every three seconds and moved 20 miles over six hours. People who would look at a way the fire and they call 911. And despite nobody knew nobody, nobody’s at fault here because nobody knew. They were like, oh, you’re fine. It’s 20 miles away. But these same people, just a couple of hours later were literally running for their lives in the middle of the night surrounded by flying embers, and to the point where the Tubbs Fire took the overpass to get over a six lane freeway. So I think having a lot of respect for how hot and fast, and a guy that I know, Ken Donnelly, who lost his home in the Dixie fire and his business, he was there when it was coming through. He was not the only one to describe it as a tsunami of flame, a 500 foot. He said 500 feet. I don’t know if it’s really that high. 500 foot wall, a tsunami of flame coming at the town and just ate it all up and nothing flat. So something that people have to be aware of is that the speed and intensity are not orderly, and we often halt the Godzilla effect. People will be like, well, why here? Why are there three houses left over here? But 1700 this year destroyed over here, why did it skip the gas station by Coffee Park? I don’t know. But it did, and it didn’t hit the ember. So what can people do just around ember cast specifically to protect their homes that are fairly low cost solutions?
Daniel Gorham: Absolutely. I talked about embers getting into the home. So I would say that one of the number one priorities should be any of those openings. And I’ll talk about some of the typical ones Ember resisted, okay. So what are the kinds of openings that you would have? You might have vent into your attic space or to your crawlspace, if you have one. And venting in these building systems is actually really important. Again, I’m not a building scientist, but I talked to them. I understand that that natural flow of air actually helps to manage the moisture in those enclosed spaces like your attic and crawlspace. And moisture can cause a really big problem. So there are unvented attic designs, and I won’t go down into that detail. But where you have venting, acknowledge that venting itself is not bad. But where you have venting, that’s a pathway for embers to get in. And if embers get in, they can cause division. So what is an ember resistant vent? Ember resistant vent is one that doesn’t entirely prevent embers from impacting it. We’re not going to stop that entire sky full of embers from impacting the event, but we want to limit any of the embers that are able to get through such that they don’t have enough energy or ignition potential.
And so one of the DIY, one of the most cost effective ways to do that is actually with metal. So it’s going to be non combustible metal mesh that is at least eighth inch or smaller. So if you look on your home, you might already have metal mesh that you say, I’m good. Well, is it an eighth inch or smaller? You can test this by going and getting one of your golf tees. Or if you’re not a golfer, maybe ask your neighbor. And if your golf tee can fit through the middle mesh, that means it’s larger than an eighth of an inch. And we found that with research here at IBHS that if embers are smaller than eighth of an inch, only ones that small can get through, they don’t have enough energy potential to ignite something side. So you might still have some debris in your attic that you had to sweep up. But the likelihood that any of those embers have enough energy to ignite something is so low. So just that eighth inch metal mesh over your vents is not going to prevent embers from impacting them, but it’s going to reduce the size of the embers get through that they don’t ignite. Some other openings in your homes, you might have a window. And again, windows are great for airflow. But one of those things where if you’re evacuating, making sure your windows are closed. You have that mesh screen on the outside of it, a lot of times, it’s just a plastic material and not too much radiant heat can cause that to melt. And so if your window is open and that screen is melted, that’s just basically a big pathway for embers getting to your home. So making sure your windows are closed, your doors are closed. One of the doors that you might not think about if you are evacuating is your garage door. As you’re pulling out of the garage with your car, close the garage door behind you. Because again, where you store your decorations, where you store your firewood, maybe in your garage. If that garage door is open, that can be a pathway for ember to get inside.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I’m actually really happy that you brought up garage doors because we have a new law that was enacted, I think, in 2018 here in California that all new builds have to have a battery backup. Unfortunately, in 2017, we saw, as you know, certain amount of our fatalities were due to the fact that all of the power was off, and people could not operate their manual opening. They were often older people. And unless you’ve practiced in a stressful environment getting up on top of your car, and then pulling that door open, it’s not as useful as one might think unless you have a battery backup. So I’d really love to see that in more areas. I understand that there’s an extra cost involved. That could be another opportunity for another nonprofit that has some kind of wants to help seniors or people who are disabled, there’s a real opportunity there to put in a basic safety measure that will allow for, hopefully get them to survive a mega fire at a moment’s notice. So side note, I’d like to get into the part. I was really fascinated actually, I think it was from one of the videos that you have about why it’s so important to avoid ladder fuels near your home, or what happens with the landscaping around your home in the event of a mega fire, which really leads back to your certification program.
Daniel Gorham: Yeah. I talked about a vent is a pathway for embers to get inside. A lot of times, I would attribute that to a direct ember ignition. Going back to the statistic up to 90% of home ignitions are caused by embers. One of those Ember ignition pathways is embers getting into the home through the vents. Another one of the ways that we attribute and many people attribute ember ignitions is we kind of describe it as indirect ember ignition. So let’s talk about what’s around your home. There’s hundreds of hundreds of hundreds of embers in the sky. Maybe they’re hitting your event. But don’t worry, you have an eighth inch metal mesh so embers that are able to get through are just so small. They’re not going to indict anything. But some of those embers don’t even impact the event, they just hit your wall and fall to the ground. And so they’re sitting on the ground right at the base or wall. And so what is at the base of the wall? What’s around your home? A lot of people have mulch beds or they have plants. And so embers are going to land there. We’ve done a lot of research here at the lab to talk about what is that zone? And there’s wind engineering and science that goes into, what is the size of that zone? But we find generally that about within five feet of the home based on the recirculation effect is where embers tend to accumulate and durability. And so that’s where embers accumulate. If they have receptive fuels like mulch or ornamental vegetation and they land there, they can ignite it. And so that ignited mulch, or ornamental rotation, or stack of firewood, or maybe you have a little plastic chest that you store your patio furniture and you didn’t leave your patio cushions out, but you put them into the chest and embers were able to get into there. We’ve also found that flames that are that close within five feet of the home can cause this direct flame impact. It can impact the window and break out the window creating a pathway for embers get inside. It can impact the eave where you might have opened and get fire into the attic. And that flame from that burning ornamental vegetation or that mulch is only there because of the ember. And that’s how we attribute that as an indirect ember ignition that is embers that land around the home typically within that first five feet and have something to ignite, and that’s something burning creates a flame that ultimately ignite your home, that is that pathway for that ember to cause at home ignition.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And that’s I think where they are ingenuity around our aesthetics is going to have to sort of shift. But I think that people like having beautiful things near their home, and I do think that it will ship. The other thing is that often we look at the landscaping around our house, it goes right up to it to say we have green grass. And you may think, if I tried to start a fire if I was camping that would never Ignite. But I’ve seen videos like in the automated fire where the green grass was igniting near right up against the home because all the conditions were right for it. Can you talk about that?
Daniel Gorham: Yeah, absolutely. You talk about describing vegetation. And again, I’m not an ecologist, I need a qualifier there. But I’ve also seen, otherwise green vegetation that I’d say no way that would burn, and I’m a fire engineer so I tried to test it and lo and behold, you’re right in the right conditions. If it’s dry enough, if the relative humidity is low enough, all of those things, you can get even green vegetation like green grass to burn. And we talked about the Marshal Fire, that was an instance where the primary wildland fuel was actually grass. Now, it wasn’t necessarily the grass that you might have around your yard, but grass the same. And that was very much dried out grass. And so exactly like you said, green grass and the right conditions can burn. The other thing is, it may be green today and you’re on vacation, or other things come up. How rapidly that green, what you would expect to not burn vegetation can transition to something that can be exactly as described, basically a wick or a pathway for the flames to spread up to your home.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Where I live in California, we are subject now to, they are calling it a mega drought. We’re subject to all kinds of like letters from our unite learners. I just got them from my water agencies saying essentially, they basically want you to use about half as much water as you have been using so everybody can have water. We all have to use less water. The first thing to go for almost all of us is our landscaping. And so it’s a hard thing because you’re actually like creating, unless you use some of the tips and advice that you get from IBHS on their website through their certification program, you could be inadvertently while you’re trying to be ecologically conscious and save water also be providing the perfect conditions for your house not surviving wildfire. So it’s tough, which is why I like the fact that you all have dedicated your time and your very specific expertise, which again, super fan. I swear, I am coming out to visit your facility at some point. I just know this to be true. Can you go in and talk about what really triggered the decision, though, to really start to lean into wildfires? Obviously, there’s a huge amount of economic loss. But we often see more hand wringing and less results, which is why I liked the fact that you all are not only a nonprofit, but the fact that you’re science driven. Can you talk about what that conversation has been like over the past five years or when you started the development of this particular program?
Alister Watt: Yes. So science is evolving in warfare. We don’t have all the answers yet. We have a multi year program. We’re looking right now at ignition potential between different distances and different types of buildings under different weather conditions. We burned a lot of fuel, and the Department of Environmental Quality is on us. And we do comply. We know that we’re not powerless against wildfires, it’s a question of what are the steps? What are the actions that really make a difference? And that’s what we’ve been studying. We’ve burned more buildings accidentally through ember transmission with accumulation on combustible siding. We have Anne Coppa, Chief Engineer, will tell you over the years how many buildings she has accidentally burned. And so that again stacks up with what we see in the field after fires, and just can give us some empirical evidence that confirms that our science is actually correct. The other part of this is, we, 10 years ago, 11 years ago, we started a mitigation program for hurricanes. The hurricane coast in Texas all the way up to Massachusetts, and Connecticut. That program started off with the designation program like wildfire prepared. There are three levels. There’s a roof. Keep your roof on, keep the water out, protect the openings from high wind blowing in your windows and then turning your house into a balloon. And then there’s the gold level, which is under really high winds, keeping the structural integrity of the building together. And we’ve learned how to do that type of mitigation program. We’ve learned the value of the independent verification, and making sure that independent verification is absolutely reliable, which is what our member companies want is that predictability in them as they try and manage their risk. So the confidence in knowing how to start one of these programs and how to run it, combined with the science that we’ve got made it compelling for us to go down this path. And we’ve gone down quickly. As I mentioned, we started in September, and we launched in June.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: That’s actually very impressive. I have to say that in the work that I’ve been doing for the past five years, I speak a lot of national conferences. I’m usually the only wildfire person there. I peek at what the Walmart conference, I think there’s one other wildfire person there who was doing more of it in the science side. And it’s been one of those issues where I’m always like, wait, this is a huge issue. But it’s really just a brand new sort of issue at the level of the destruction is only about five years old. We had a bit of a clue in 2015 with the Valley Fire and Lake County that looked like a one off. We’d had no idea even when our wildfires came and CalFire had said, this is unprecedented. We’ve never seen wildfire behavior like this before. And then every couple of months, I hear the word unprecedented over again. I’m like, well, it’s all precedented now. And this is where we are. But I’m also glad that you mentioned, I have a lot of respect for wind and rain. I know that especially in this country, and with FEMA in their background, they’ve got decades and decades and decades of experience about what needs to be done in wildfire. It’s such a young industry for the area for what we’re dealing with right now in that era of mega fires. I’m always hopeful when a really impactful institution or nonprofit organization like IBHS says, we’re gonna go all the way in because I am biased. But I think that wildfires a little more manageable than wind and rain because we’re not trying to hold back the sea in the sky. There’s just things we can do to live alongside of these mega fires, but it’s going to take organizations like yours, it’s going to take collaboration from the US Forest Service and in the State Forest Services across the way the local government, it’s a lot of collaborative modeling that has to go into solving the issue. I just want to express my appreciation that IBHS is here now. So I just want to if you want to comment on that.
Alister Watt: Thank you. We would love to welcome you here in the Research Center. And if you want to see the inside of where we create hurricanes inside a building, where we create wildfire inside a building, where we create hail storms inside a building, just go on ibhs.org. You find the videos, they’re kind of fun to watch if you’re interested in that kind of thing.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Let me just assure you that they’re really fun to watch. And it’s not that I don’t enjoy disasters, but there’s something so comforting about watching the scientists deal with it because we deal with a lot of the aftermath, the trauma and what happens there. In my job, I do a lot of education especially for nonprofits and the for profit sector to understand that it’s not the same as wind and rain. And the rebuilding process is just very different because it’s so much longer. You dealt with the hazards of this oily ash. It’s not your campfire, it’s completely different. And we don’t even really start to rebuild until after year one, which is just different. There’s nothing left to muck, or none of those things that you guys are in here with us. I think it bodes well for where we’re gonna go in the future. So I’m wondering from either of you if there’s something that you want to talk about that I have not yet asked about because I know I’m directing the conversation. I’m really excited that you’re here, and I want to make sure that I’m touching on everything that matters to you that you want to talk about a little.
Alister Watt: Bit about our ember generators.
Daniel Gorham: Sure. Yeah. Jennifer, you talk about the videos that Alister talked about recreating the hazards. And I talked about what you might see in the real world. You can go on YouTube or Vimeo and see some of those. One of the cornerstones of the research center, and we’ve actually been doing this for over 10 years is to recreate that hazard. Exactly as you said, Jennifer, in these real world events, a lot of times, we’re dealing with the post event recovery. And we have questions about what happened during. Some of those questions were the premise of building the Research Center, building this facility, and you can see the wall has a fan, 105 fans that generate wind speeds of excess of 100 miles an hour. All of that was intentional to recreate the hazard. And so specifically about wildfire and how important a role that embers play in building the ignition, we can’t just create a wildfire out in the woods and safely just have it burned into homes. And so we want to, again, safely and importantly from a scientific perspective, repeatedly recreate that. As Alister alluded to, we have the Ember generator. So the fans can generate this wind speed.
One of the important things is it’s not a constant wind speed, it’s a fluctuating wind speed, and that plays an important role in ember transport getting stuck in places and moving along. But the other side of that is actually seeding that wind flow with the embers. So I talked about how you might have a campfire or a fireplace and the embers coming up. Well, we do that at a pretty large scale. We actually intentionally create embers of the sizes that we might measure in the field. And so being able to repeatedly expose a known building at unknown wind speed to unknown amount of embers allows us to study, as Aleister alluded to the system of a building and how the roof interfaces with the wall and say like a dormer and where the wall interfaces with the ground like in that first five feet. Some of these other nuanced details, like gable vents, or ridge vents, and the energy generated in the research facility allow us to do that controllably. And again, as you said, for science, we’re able to repeatedly do it. So it wasn’t necessarily a one off we see it consistently. And that’s an important part of understanding this phenomenon. I think so many people that have unfortunately experienced either during evacuation or just in the media wildfire, I think are getting this appreciation for embers, but then it leads to, what can we do about them. We talked about the things that people can do.
But another part of that is to bring people in and see that in a controlled way. The picture over our shoulder here is a side by side. Both sides of that building are being exposed to the same members. One side has flames on the ground, and the siding burned up the side. And on the other side was also experiencing ember. But because there were non combustible rocks in that first five feet, the embers landed there, but they didn’t have anything to ignite. And again, that’s an important part of taking the science, understanding it from the physical phenomena, and then also communicating that, translating that so people can understand why they should be creating this zero to five foot non combustible zone. Not because we don’t like your rosebush, but because it plays an important role when embers land there.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, I like it too. I sometimes say that our real job is to provide weed navigation after a wildfire. But a lot of it is just based on hope. Like there is something you can do. This is not inevitable. I think it’s nice when people look at California or the West Coast. And I hear this from my friends who work nationally in disaster in other perils. They’re like, oh, Jen, no way do I want to do wildfire. It looks too scary. It’s so complicated. It’s so different from what we’re used to. And I’m always like, just come along and learn in increments with me, because it’s not going away. We actually need national people who have the skill sets and the science, the wherewithal or the services, and whatever it is to not lean out. But instead, lean in because this is the reality of what’s happening. We need to get to a place where insurance companies can and do insure these areas that are in the middle of the wildland urban interface that, again, wildfire doesn’t really care about that it’s going to go where it’s going to go, but it does give us some guidelines. And so I just really want to thank IBHS for being a part of the solution that is actually going to provide people with a path forward, because we see that there’s so much trauma involved, a sense of helplessness can also prevail in these disasters. That’s why we need you, and I just want to thank you for that.
Alister Watt: One thing I like to add to that is we conduct a lot of social science. We do focus groups, we do statistically show evidence and research to fairly high standards from scientists, researchers. So we like to replicate that in the social sphere. And what I tell you is that people understand the threat of a hurricane because they can see it on TV. You remember Hurricane Dorian was on TV for two weeks approaching the United States. At any point, we thought it was gonna make it a direct hit in Florida. And so people kind of understand that. But there’s really going to happen to me? I don’t know. Tornadoes, people can do nothing about that. And there is. Because even an EF5 tornado is not EF5 all the time. It’s going up and down and bouncing around. And then the wind, the lower wind speeds, the EF0 and EF1, there are mitigation steps you can take with the Florida Five standard to make your house have a better chance of surviving and you’re returning faster. So there’s a failure of imagination, it is not going to happen to me. But I’ll tell you, the research that we did in California, people understood the risk. They just said, tell me what to do about it. And the sentiment in Paradise right now that they’re in the next sandwich shop a couple of weeks ago, and the owner was telling me that the sentiment is, you’re going to spend a little bit more to build it, or you’re not going to build out toe to toe. And that’s a very different place to come from, as you consider taking on mitigation steps.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I do think it’s worth noting that they are on November 8, they will be four years post disaster. So, you know, for these newer or newly minted communities after a disaster, what they want to do is get back everything that they had before. And we are always sending the message that we really don’t exist after it happens. But you can reimagine how you’re going to move forward, which is part of what the service that you all are bringing to that reimagining of it. We don’t see that same sort of alignment in all wildfire communities that are more newly minted into this space. But I think that there is an opportunity for national nonprofits. I see it definitely coming down from FEMA, very happy about that. And organizations like IBHS and people in the private sector say, hey, let’s bring the cost down of doing all these things. I love the golf tee tip, by the way. I’m going to take that with me. What can you do year round in blue sky events? And then if you know you have a half an hour to leave your house, but your go bag is ready, which a lot of us are now all the time. You have a plan for your animals, I have all of our documents in one box just to grab. I’m a super prepper just so you know. I’ve got a family radio network. We’ve got it all. But if you are prepared, you can be calm, and it might even give you the extra opportunity to take some mitigations before you leave. Some of the private company venting is very expensive, but you could cover your vents while you’re gone with the right budget. There’s things that we can do. I would really like to see a lot of grant programs for home hardening. And I know that’s coming down from the federal government, but accessing those can be tough. But I’m hoping that this leads to even more. I don’t care if it’s in nonprofits, it doesn’t matter to me who actually does it as long as it helps people who are under-resourced, especially in rural communities, and super passionate about that in particular. Find a way to live alongside wildfire while we’re also mitigating the forest.
And I think you guys are going to be a really big voice and a really important part of that. I’m so pleased that you’re going to be at our Wildfire Summit. I want to thank you from the wildfire community for the work that you’re doing. I know you know that it matters, but I’m just going to really say to you that you have worked in 18 mega fires. Now, it really, really matters. And thank you, I appreciate it. So if there’s nothing else that I have forgotten to ask you, I think we’re pretty much at time, and I just want to encourage you. Can you go ahead and give the website for IBHS generally first and also for the wildfire hardening program before we go?
Alister Watt: Sure. So the three websites are, the big one is ibhs.org, and you can find links to the other sites. There’s disastersafety.org is where you’ll find guides like a wildfire ready guide. So you mentioned they have weekend activities, print off the guide or just put it up on your computer, and just pick something to do. You can work your way through the list, you’ve got all year. And then the new designation program is on its own website, wildfireprepared.org, and you can sign up there to receive regular updates and information as our program develops.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And I want to note that with all of the wildfires that are going on in Europe right now, there have been going on for those few people in Germany listening like I see you on my reports. the other nice things are these are not specific to America. This works in British Columbia, will work in France, it’s a work in Germany, these same ideas are universal. Because again, fire doesn’t really care what your nationality is. It’s just going to do what I want to do. And that’s the era that we’re in, and we can make it through as long as we do a lot of this kind of work together. So thank you again for being on The How to Disaster Podcast.