INTERFAZ: Lessons in Wildfire from Chile’s Urban-Forest Interface

​On an afternoon in late June 2018, in the Biobio region of southwestern Chile, thirty firefighters assembled to defend a rural property from an advancing wildfire. On a steep slope marking the division between the house and grounds below and many acres of industrial pine plantation above, three hand crews labored to construct fire line to hold the approaching flames. Meanwhile, two fire engines stood ready to extinguish any spot fires or embers that might reach the structure, and a few firefighters took time to reassure the local residents on site who were distressed at seeing the mounting risk to their homes. In spite of having come together only a few days prior, the thirty fire professionals seemed to work together seamlessly under an organized structure of command to prepare for the fire’s imminent arrival over the adjacent ridge.

Chile’s wildland-urban interface (WUI) is increasing nationwide. The WUI is defined as an area in which human systems and structures are intermixed with undeveloped wildland vegetation. A perfect storm of widespread rural-urban migration, rapid growth in housing developments, limited urban planning and zoning as new developments go up, and a nascent field of cross-sector fire planning has created a geography of high wildfire risk. This reality threatens homes and communities, as well as the commercial timber plantations—primarily of Pinus radiata and Eucalyptus globulus—that are increasingly in contact with the built environment. 

In this context, the scene witnessed on the hillside in the Biobio is typical of what Chilean authorities increasingly expect during the hot, dry, windy summer season that peaks each January. However, the scene described above occurred squarely in the winter season, under a light drizzle and following a week of snow. There was, in fact, no advancing front of crackling flames, and the distraught residents were instructors, earnestly playing their parts. The “incident” itself was a scenario carefully laid out as a practical field component to a five-day course on wildfires in the wildland-urban interface. 

The course, “Tools for Wildfire Prevention and Response in the Wildland-Urban Interface” was coordinated by Chile’s National Forest Corporation (CONAF) and USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA). I had the tremendous privilege of representing the Forest Stewards Guild and joining José Luis Duce, wildland firefighter and training coordinator for The Nature Conservancy, as a co-instructor of the course. From June 25 to 29, professionals representing CONAF, Chile’s National Board of Fire Brigades, and private timber companies including Arauco, Forestal Mininco, and Comaco Forestal came together to set priority actions for developing a coherent, cross-sector strategy for wildfires in Chile’s wildland urban interface. 

In bringing together professionals from all sectors of fire response, the course aimed to address an emergency management challenge that refuses to limit itself within discrete jurisdictional lines. Where urban and forest zones intermingle in the WUI, the hazardous elements of both contexts magnify the challenges of fighting fire. Structural firefighters may not be trained in slowing or mitigating the fire before it arrives at a structure, while wildland professionals may not anticipate needing to manage residents or be prepared for the safety hazards, including toxic smoke and flashovers, particular to structural fires. 

Through lectures, discussion, and practical field exercises, the INTERFAZ course covered basic fire concepts, situational awareness, WUI strategies and concepts, home hazard assessments, incident operations, and safety. Above all, the course emphasized the use of the Incident Command System (ICS), a standardized approach of the U.S. National Incident Management System for the effective coordination of multiple agencies and resources responding to emergency situations. The course itself was run as an incident, complete with a designated Incident Management Team, chain of command, action plans, daily briefings, and After Action Reviews. The efficacy and widespread applicability of this system was brought home to participants during the practical scenario in the field, as newly-acquainted professionals from diverse backgrounds representing an array of agencies worked in concert to respond to the incident with which they were presented. 

The five days culminated with a collaborative development process toward coordinated wildfire planning and response at the national level. Participants worked together to set priorities and delegate tasks for the following weeks, with the aim of developing common tools and protocols for the prevention and control of wildfires in WUI zones across the country. The course itself was thus only the first step—an introduction to the particulars of WUI wildfires and to working collaboratively across agency lines. 

Now, following the graduation ceremony and awarding of certificates at the conclusion of the course, the dialog continues. Back at their respective posts across the country, these forestry and firefighting professionals are working together through newly formed inter-agency alliances. By next year when the warm, dry winds of summer arrive, the chilly June afternoon on the hillside may be a distant memory for those who took part in the exercise. Still, the foundation of collaborative planning and coordinated response will have supported progress towards a unified strategy for safeguarding lives, property, and natural resources in Chile’s Wildland Urban Interface. 

-Written and photos by Leonora Pepper