A bold new plan from NFPA calls for ending the destruction of communities in the United States by wildfire in 30 years. Achieving that goal will require a coordinated effort among all levels of government and the cooperation of residents in fire-prone areas.
For more than half a century, Americans have been building their way into trouble with wildfires. Across the country, we insist on putting homes, businesses and infrastructure into fire-prone areas, failing to understand or acknowledge the risks. An estimated 4.5 million homes in the United States face high or extreme risk of wildfire. In California alone, a million new homes are projected to be built in areas with very high wildfire risk in the next 30 years. Meanwhile, we grow accustomed to headlines proclaiming the latest ‘worst-ever’ or ‘largest-ever’ wildfire events and the unimaginable damage they inflict on landscapes, communities, and people.
It doesn’t have to be this way. The United States has enough scientific know-how and experience with devastating loss to finally end this cycle of building and burning. It’s time to stop dodging the heart of the problem by bemoaning losses and pointing fingers. It’s time to take definitive steps toward creating a new approach to how we live with wildfire. Such steps are influenced by international best practices as well. These include proactive building codes in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, Australia; resident-led preparedness in the face of growing forest and heathland fires in the United Kingdom; and educating rural residents about wildfire risks as former agricultural lands transition to forests in Lebanon.
Outthink Wildfire, a new initiative launched by NFPA, follows this lead, with a single bold and attainable goal: to end the destruction of communities from wildfires in the United States in the next 30 years.
As colleagues in NFPA’s Wildfire Division, we are excited by this ambitious new effort. Between the two of us, we’ve spent more than three decades on the front lines of the expanding crisis of community destruction due to wildfire, immersed in the details of disasters as we worked to create new and better solutions to the problem. And we’ve seen some amazing successes both domestically and internationally: neighbourhoods saved because property owners took voluntary steps to reduce risk, local officials who used and enforced sound land use and building standards, fire departments that safely and effectively responded to wildfires with proper training, equipment and community cooperation. We’ve told these stories and celebrated these achievements as important parts of our work with NFPA.
But the success stories in the United States are far too rare because the traditional responses to wildfire risks aren’t enough. Solving the problem by relying solely on voluntary action and an informed public won’t work, either. Nor will placing the bulk of the responsibility on first responders. We can’t simply do what we’ve always done to address the problem; what is needed are new approaches, new tactics and a new resolve to use what we’ve learned about the risks of the wildland/urban interface (WUI) over the past 50 years to create a new blueprint for addressing the nation’s wildfire crisis.
That’s where Outthink Wildfire comes in. The effort is based on five steps that must occur at all levels of US government that will make it easier for communities to foster collaboration, enact change, achieve resilience and protect themselves from wildfire. These same tenets can be applied globally. Steps include:
- Helping the public understand its role in reducing wildfire risk and providing citizens with the tools to take meaningful action
- Requiring all homes and businesses in the WUI to be more resistant to ignition from wildfire embers and flames
- Ensuring that fire departments that serve WUI communities are prepared to respond safely and effectively to wildfire
- Working with all levels of government to increase resources for vegetative fuel management on public lands
- Ensuring that current codes and standards, as well as sound land-use practices, are in use and enforced for new development and rebuilding in wildfire-prone areas
Achieving these outcomes doesn’t mean a complete reinvention of the wheel. The core components of Outthink Wildfire are already being demonstrated in communities around the United States as residents, local officials, developers and fire departments experience expanding development, persistent drought conditions and the effects of previous (and problematic) land-use policies, all of which contribute to an increased risk of wildfire. With the size and scope of the US wildfire challenge, reaching any one of the Outthink Wildfire goals will take time. But making progress toward all of them will save lives and property. The key to ending the long nightmare of the destruction of communities by wildfire is to start now.
Current codes and standards, as well as sound land-use practices, must be in use and enforced for new development and rebuilding in wildfire-prone areas.
Between 1990 and 2010, the number of acres in the US that existed in the WUI – areas where development encroaches on wildfire-prone landscapes – grew by 33%, to more than 190 million acres. The number of homes constructed on those lands expanded by 41%, to at least 43.4 million units. To better protect lives and property in the WUI, communities must address where and how they build homes and businesses, a process that will require the use of comprehensive land-use planning, including codes and standards.
Land-use planning tools and practices offer the means to reduce the risk posed by wildfires to both future and existing development. Comprehensive, or general, plans guide the development of a community, usually in a timeframe of 20 to 30 years, and contain community goals as well as the policy objectives necessary to reach them. But the use of these tools and practices is not widespread. An extensive adoption of land-use planning at the local level, supported through state and federal policies, is urgently needed to lower the danger wildfires pose to thousands of communities.
This is not an easy process, as demonstrated by the community of Payson, Arizona. The town made news in 1990 when six firefighters died and 60 homes were destroyed in the Dude Fire. Despite that history, local officials have argued for years over the need to adopt basic wildfire safety standards for new construction. The debate took on new urgency following the deadly and destructive 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire in neighbouring Yavapai County, which killed 19 wildland firefighters. In its aftermath, local media noted that neither Payson nor the county where it was located had adopted a building code that would require non-combustible roofs, a key factor in home and community survivability during a wildfire. Town council meetings in Payson routinely devolved into rancorous debates, fuelled in part by resistance to what some saw as draconian measures that would hinder development and drive down property values. An ordinance was finally passed last year requiring vegetative fuel modification and maintenance around homes, but the town and county have yet to require that new homes be built safely.
States must require plan development that addresses a range of wildfire safety issues. Plans should include descriptions of the hazards and risks in the community, and they should identify policy objectives to reduce risk over time as well as the necessary actions to implement those policies. These policies need to incorporate building and zoning codes, such as those developed by NFPA, as well as other development requirements. They should provide assessments of the hazard that take into account the likelihood and potential intensity of a fire, as well as the risk that considers the impact of wildfire on community members and property – information that is available through a variety of sources including the USDA Forest Service’s Wildfire Risk to Communities (wildfirerisk.org). These are the kinds of resources that are critical in helping planners and local leaders prioritise mitigation initiatives in their communities, track risk-reduction activities and incorporate critical wildfire safety measures into planning and regulatory policies.
Communities need this information at several levels, from regional to subdivision to individual parcels. These assessments can show where land-management actions will be most effective for reducing risk, identify community members who are at the highest risk, and illustrate how individual properties might help spread wildfire. All of this information can help prioritise mitigation actions and guide development away from areas with the highest level of hazard. The more detailed information the community has developed through hazard and risk assessments, the better tailored these regulations can be. At the federal level, incentivisation of planning for wildfires and hazard mitigation through access to funding and prioritisation for land-management activities must also continue.
In the second part of this feature we will look at how homes and businesses with the WUI must be more resistant to ignition from wildfire embers and flames as well exploring how fire departments for WUI communities must be prepared to respond safely and effectively to wildfire.
For more information, go to www.nfpa.org/outthinkwildfire