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About Viking Research

Last Updated: August 2nd, 2007

Viking Research is a dba established by Don Oaks in 1971. The original business model was a combination of teaching and fire code consulting. The teaching opportunities were at universities, community colleges, and State and local fire academies. The code consulting was primarily in the petroleum industry. During the 1980’s, the business activity centered in teaching for the National Fire Academy, providing expert witness testimony, and providing consulting services to residential developers in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). During the 1990’s the business activity was exclusively WUI related. Since retirement in 2001, the scope of services provided retains activity related to the WUI, but has broadened. Services currently provided include fire expert witness testimony and litigation support, design and development of environmentally friendly suppression systems for specialized vehicles, and design, application, and advocacy related to a broad range of fire protection issues.

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Biography: Don Oaks

Last Updated: August 1st, 2007

Don Oaks

Don Oaks is retired professional fire service. A 39 year veteran, Don spent over two decades as the Fire Marshal of the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. He holds a bachelor’s degree in public administration from California State University at Long Beach (1973), with post graduate work in political science/public policy at UCLA and USC, and a doctorate in law from the California Law Institute at Santa Barbara (1978). Don is a California attorney.

Don has represented the California Fire Chief’s Association (CFCA) and the State Fire Marshal’s Office and is past president of the CFCA Fire Prevention Officers. He is a past chair of the Firescope Hazardous Materials Committee. He is a past member of the Flammable Liquids Committee, Explosives Committee, Building Committee, and Fire Code Committee for the California Fire Chief’s Association. He is a past member of the Internatioal Code Council (ICC) Fire Code committee. He is a past member of the Wildland/Urban Interface committee of the Western Fire Chief’s Association, and currently co-chairs the Wildland-Urban Interface Committee for the California Fire Chief’s Association. He has authored ordinances for various communities including those relating to special protection, high rise building systems, toxic and hazardous materials, automatic fire sprinklers, urban/wildland interface, and land use controls.

Don holds a California teaching credential and various professional certifications and designations including Hazardous Materials Management; NBC Weapons of Mass Destruction; and Incident Command System (Red Card Incident Commander, Plans Section Chief, and Command Staff). He has lectured in several California colleges and universities. He is a member of the adjunct faculty of the National Fire Academy and has lectured for state academies of California, Arizona, Washington, Nevada, Wyoming, Hawaii, and Alaska.

Don has authored a variety of fire protection, emergency procedure, and organizational management books and professional journal articles, including the “Project Management” section of Managing Fire Services ICMA, (1988), and contributed to, Development Strategies in the Wildland/Urban Interface, Western Fire Chief’s Association (1991, 1997). He authored the chapter, “Mitigation or Litigation”, for a book edited by Rodney Slaughter titled, The I-Zone: California’s Mitigation Strategies, (1995). He authored a new section in the 2000 edition of the Uniform Fire Code, “Article 86, Development in Wildland-Urban Interface Areas”. He authored an article in the April, 2000 issue of Fire Chief Magazine titled “Fight or Flight”, an argument for more creative regulation of active and passive fire protection systems in urban-wildland interface development. He continues the argument for building standards consistent with “Sheltering in Place”, in the September-October, 2001 issue of Building Standards, published by the International Conference of Building Officials(ICBO). He was active in the 2005 creation of a new chapter in the California Building Code focused on development in the wildland-urban interface.

Don provides fire protection design, application, interpretation, and advocacy consulting services.

/ Phone: 805.680.1818

Billing Information

Last Updated: August 1st, 2007
Don Oaks
2650 Latigo Drive
Solvang, Ca

I bill $350.00 per hour, portal to portal from my office in Solvang, plus extraordinary expenses such as air fare and hotels. I like to keep it simple. Routine expenses such as meals, clerical, and carfare are included in the hourly rate. I cap my billing at 10 hours per day regardless of actual time logged unless extraordinary time is required by, and preapproved by, a client. I expect payment by client within 30 days of receiving my e-mail invoice. I require a $5,000.00 deposit to start a project. I do not consent to being listed as a potential expert witness in any proceeding, or a subcontractor associated with any project, unless a retainer has been paid. I am an attorney at law, licensed to practice in the State of California but I am not currently providing, nor offering to provide, legal counsel or representation.

I prefer e-mail for ongoing communications.

E-mail: donoaks@syv.com \ Cell: 805.680.1818

Fight or Flight?

An argument for greater regulatory effort in support of "sheltering in place" for residential safety in urban-wildland interface areas.
by Don Oaks - February 20, 2000

Tough Questions

Fight or flight? When faced with the awesome destructive power of Mother Nature in the form of an advancing wildland/interface fire, what should the residents do? Should they stay in their homes and hope the fire will leap frog through the community and spare their particular house? Should they clamber to the roof with garden hose in hand in one final act of desperate futility? Should they rush outside and join a horde of other panic driven residents competing for space on roads that cannot possibly be made wide enough to guarantee safe evacuation? What do you, as a first responder to the event, tell them to do? What do you, as the incident Information Officer, tell the television reporters the residents should be doing? What do you, as the Fire Marshal or the Fire Chief, say during the incident and for many months afterward about what should have been done?

There is an old saying that I am particularly fond of. It goes, "Oh what tangled webs we weave, when first we practice to deceive". I find that line darkly fitting the present fire prevention conventional wisdom where the focus is on evacuation. At a time when we have both the technique and the technology to safely build residences in what we loosely characterize as the I-zone, we apparently lack the wisdom or the will to do so. Instead, we prioritize multiple access/egress as part of a cookie cutter approach to fire protection planning in the urban-wildland interface areas and thereby educate, influence and deceive the public, the respective legislative bodies and the myriad other stakeholders. By our actions we communicate to them that their future fire safety is not a product of their survival in the homes we approve, or should approve for them, but rather their evacuation infrastructure and scheme.

I'm not suggesting that having more than one path in and out of a fire risk area is a bad thing. Multiple paths are beneficial. However, the value of a second path should not be for its contribution to egress but rather to access for first responders. And it should not be the first priority. Our message to the various constituencies should not be, "In case of fire .... RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!" Our message should be a combination of the statements made in two TV series. The first was in the opening moments of the older series, Six Million Dollar Man, where scientists and doctors rebuilt a gravely injured astronaut to superhuman performance attributes with high tech cybernetic implants. The statement was simply; "We have the technology". The second was the more recent, Star Trek Next Generation, where Captain Picard of the starship Enterprise simply commands, "Make it so".

Eyes of the Beholder

The statements above may seem overly simplistic and the metaphorical image may seem cavalier. The fact is we are at a critical juncture with respect to our influence on the future fire safety of our respective communities. We are still viewed as fire safety experts by most citizens and decision-makers. That view won't be maintained if a constantly more aware and observing population sees us continue to approve homes where the resident's safety is predicated on their ability to navigate a roadway filled with stalled, wrecked, driverless cars, other panicky people, horses and dogs. The October 1991, Oakland California, Berkeley Hills, "Tunnel" fire is a good example. The fire burned 1,600 acres. 25 people died. They didn't die in their homes. They died on the roads in a futile attempt to evacuate. On June 27, 1990, Santa Barbara County's "Paint" fire, then the most destructive fire in California history, burned 5,000 acres, 641 residences, and 15 businesses in a little over two hours. Santa Barbara County was intensely experienced in urban-wildland fires before the term became fashionable. They had been aggressive in mandating survivable development for several decades. The only person killed by fire was fleeing from her home. Her home survived. She did not.

Old Habits

Our influence in the planning and building process is a relatively recent development. That is part of our problem. Just a few short decades ago the role of the fire service was relegated to that of maintenance only. That is, our regulations applied only after the building was given an occupancy clearance. Our codes were often referred to as maintenance codes. Some of them are still viewed as such. One of the reasons we focus on evacuation is habit. Habit developed during a time when that was all we were left with. Such is not the case today. We have been increasing our influence constantly and consistently over the last few decades. The factors that have contributed to this increase in influence are numerous; the improved training and education of the fire service, the influence of insurance companies and their various umbrella organizations, court decisions relating to liability of public officials, spiraling costs of fire related life and property loss, costs of maintaining a community fire suppression delivery system, and increasing public awareness and involvement.


Ironically, those are the same factors that will erode our influence if we fail to perform in this arena with the techniques and technology now available.

During the early 1970's, the impact of the President's Commission on Fire Prevention and Control; standardization of communication and equipment, technology transfer, FIRESCOPE, ICS, fire master planning and the subsequently published product of that commission, America Burning, was tremendous. The impact is still being felt today. The impact of today's efforts in Federal, state and local legislation, codes and code development process, built on a foundation of experience, testing, engineering, and advances in materials and systems, may well be similarly viewed in the not too distant future. But, as stated previously, we are at a critical juncture and our next moves may well make or break our current strengthening role in the development of a fire safe community.

Tools of the Trade

A good example is the Urban-Wildland Interface Code, published by the International Fire Code Institute (IFCI). The UWI Code addresses a recognized need. It was developed by consensus, drawing experience and talent from throughout the fire service and from other disciplines. It underwent extensive peer review and is recognized nationally as a powerful platform for I-zone development. Unfortunately, the fire service is not using it. There is currently an amendment under review that expands the shelter-in-place element within the Code and provides graphics to depict the combination of mitigation measures appropriate in order to consider the option. This proposed amendment includes a shelter/evacuate decision tree (See Figure 1.) to be used both during an event as a go/no go device, and as a pre-event training and public education tool.

It seems, however, that the fire service is reluctant to adopt the complexity and sophistication of the approach embodied in the UWI Code. Is our only option to this complexity a second access and a vegetation management plan that probably won't be adequately maintained?

Another choice, and one related by reference to the IFCI, UWI Code, is now contained within the Uniform Fire Code (UFC). Th 2000 edition includes a new Article (See description of Article 86 and supporting definitions and abbreviations, Figure 2.) which provides the fire chief the ability to achieve conformance with a range of appropriate standards through the triggering and enabling device of a required Fire Protection Plan (FPP). The fire chief will be able to utilize, at his or her election, the extensive and detailed standards contained within a single published document such as the IFCI Urban-Wildland Interface Code, or a combination of one or more recognized standards or good practices customized to reflect a measured regulatory response to the problems posed by specific site developments.

Article 86 requires the developer to, in a single document, describe the risk and burden the proposed project will impose on the community, and particularly on the fire protection delivery system, and then describe the mitigation measures offered to offset such burden. It essentially creates a contractual obligation and commitment to fire protection and effectively transfers the majority of cost of analysis, research, application and component/system correlation to the private sector.

With such tools at our disposal we can make new residential development in the I-zone capable of supporting "shelter in place" or "safe to stay" programs. With the modeling, design, engineering and technological experience of recent years it can be accomplished aesthetically and cost effectively. We can begin to change the message we send to our respective communities.

An Informed Public

At the same time and on a parallel track we should be retooling our public education and public information effort. Their message should distinguish between interior and exterior fire threats. People should continue to immediately exit a building that has a fire in its interior that puts them at risk, but not automatically exit a building when there is an exterior fire threat. Instead they should evaluate the relative risks. This public education effort will not be easy. It will appear to be inconsistent with the messages associated with our previous over-reliance on evacuation. It's difficult but can be accomplished. A good example is the change in the message of the icon Smokey Bear in the wake of Yellowstone.


An even larger hurdle will be providing the public with a method of determining whether to leave or stay in various situations. This particular hurdle may be overcome in a variety of ways. One approach would be to involve the fire department members, suppression and prevention, in house to house visits in order to pre-characterize the defensibility of a particular home. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is currently presenting Professional Fire Safe Inspector Training classes developed for fire service personnel that focus on this specialized area. This characterization would obviously be conservative. It, would, additionally, have a number of side benefits. It would be an opportunity to show the residents that you were willing to go out of your way to provide extra service to them. It would underscore your specialized knowledge and appreciation for their specific risk. Possibly the biggest value would be in explaining why their home would not be defensible and recommendations as to what could be done to improve that circumstance.


The most common recommendation would be to remove native and ornamental vegetation sufficient to break up the continuity of such fuels and thereby reduce overall heat production potential in close proximity to the home. Other recommendations could include: teaming up with neighbors to accomplish vegetative fuels reduction and separation on common areas and bordering property; reroofing with appropriately rated materials; eliminating or protecting vents, gutters and downspouts, eaves, etc.; removal or protection of structural features, such as decks, fences, patio covers, gazebos, and awnings, that could act as fuses or ladders bringing excessive heat or direct flame impingement to the home; installing tempered glass windows or shutters; modifying gates, fences and landscaping in order to provide firefighting access around the home, particularly on the down slope side; having appropriate clothing and tools readily accessible; separating combustibles such as firewood and patio furniture from the home; and putting together an written wildfire emergency action plan that includes communication, maintenance, review and training with respect to utilizing auxiliary power sources, control of effectively filtered heating and air conditioning systems, access to water sources such as separate tanks and swimming pools.

The Message

The new message, a combination of what we say and what we do, should be one that ultimately educates and builds confidence. The residents in urban-wildland interface areas should be able to have confidence in their fire service and, more particularly, in the homes we have approved for them.

The questions framed in the opening paragraph of this article cannot be reasonably answered out of context. All homes cannot be made fire safe. Emotional and physical disabilities may make certain individuals not a good prospect for staying in a fire threatened home even though it would be safe for the typical resident. The time available to make decisions with respect to staying or leaving is a significant factor. If you have sufficient time to deliberate, organize, pack your things, and travel to a safe destination without becoming involved with panic on the roadways, it may be appropriate to do so. But that is not evacuation. That is simply relocation. The distinction between relocation and evacuation is a product of the nature of the home, the fire and the individual. As fire chiefs and fire marshals we can influence all three elements of the equation.

Tough Answers

The questions in the opening paragraph do not have yes/no, black/white, always/never answers now nor will they have such answers in the future. However, if today's fire marshals and fire chiefs accept the responsibility, utilize the techniques and technologies available and wield the influence at their disposal, the answers will be much easier to apprehend in the future.

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