To effectively reduce the threats from wildfire the government must increase resources for vegetative fuel management on public land.
For more than a century, the US government has invested heavily in fire suppression infrastructure and workforce to ensure that most wildfires remain small and can be extinguished quickly. Effective response means that 97% of wildfires remain small and controllable, but it has also had an unintended and dangerous side effect.
Suppression disrupts the natural occurrence of lower-intensity wildfire, allowing vegetation and debris that would normally be cleaned out by periodic fires to accumulate. Denser, more continuous vegetative fuels create the conditions for severe wildfires that can overwhelm suppression efforts, conditions that science has demonstrated are exacerbated by climate change. To lower the risk of wildfire to communities, resources must be increased for fuel management on 120 million acres of federal land – and many more private acres – that are at high or very high risk of devastating fires.
Each year, about 3 million acres of public land are subjected to fuel treatments that include mechanical thinning and prescribed burning, a number that falls well short of the estimated 6.8 to 12 million acres per year experts believe is necessary to restore and maintain these lands. Between public and private holdings, the number of acres currently at risk of wildfire in the US is estimated to be as high as one billion.
In a 2019 report from the Government Accountability Office, the federal land management agencies acknowledged that insufficient staffing can hinder fuel management efforts, especially prescribed burns. According to a report from the National Association of Forest Service Retirees, the number of employees with the skills needed to support treatment and restoration work has fallen by 54% since 1992. The group concluded that without hiring more foresters, engineers, biologists and project coordinator specialists, the US Forest Service would not be able to significantly increase its treatment and restoration activities. Conducting a strategic workforce review and creating plans to fill positions – particularly those that require years of training – is a crucial step toward increasing the capacity of the agency to support treatment and restoration work.
Despite these challenges, examples persist of effective land management in areas with high wildfire risk. On the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona, annual prescribed burns and mechanical treatments are conducted on more than 1,000 acres. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and the San Carlos Apache Tribe use these methods to remove fast-growing grasses that could carry a wildfire into the community. The work also provides defensible space in which firefighters can work safely and effectively.
In neighbouring New Mexico, Santa Fe National Forest officials have conducted fuels reduction over nearly 20 years, partnering with the state’s forestry division and Department of Game and Fish. A combination of mechanical treatments and prescribed burns covering 8,000 acres in the Jemez Mountains has helped reduce danger to the point that the intensity of the 2018 Venado Fire was dramatically reduced when it moved into the treated area. The fire slowed enough to allow firefighters time to contain it before it reached homes, and the lower-intensity fire resulted in less severe ecological damage.
Tackling the fuel treatment needs of US landscapes demands not only workforce investment but also an increased funding commitment, cross-jurisdictional planning and cooperation, the honing of targeting and metrics, and additional assistance to meet landscape restoration needs and help communities prepare for and perform prescribed burns and other projects. Policymakers at the state and federal levels must create plans to allocate more funding for fuel treatment, or risk seeing the problem continue to grow. The US Forest Service needs to embrace a coordination role, directing funding and staff support work across jurisdictional boundaries. Further, land management agencies must pursue outcome-based metrics that track the progress made in wildfire risk reduction, including risk to communities, through the application of fuel treatments and other land management efforts.
The public must understand its role and take action in reducing wildfire risk
Nearly 45 million homes currently exist in the wildland/urban interface in the US, and more are built in fire-prone areas across the country every year. Even so, the majority of homeowners are poorly informed about wildfire risk and unprepared to take the steps necessary to minimize it, thereby jeopardizing lives, property and the local fire departments that respond in wildfire emergencies.
It is critical that people take action to protect their homes and communities from wildfire, and that includes an understanding of the concept of the ‘home ignition zone’. Years of scientific research support the practice of removing fuel sources from the area immediately around homes, which reduces the risk of home ignition from embers or radiant heat during wildfire events. These include simple, low-cost steps such as clearing dead leaves, debris, and pine needles from roofs and gutters, keeping grasses mowed, clearing dry vegetation from the property, and removing stored flammable items from underneath decks and porches. Replacing combustible roof material and installing double-pane windows reduce risk even further.
Additionally, people who reside in fire-prone areas must understand the steps they may need to take in the event of wildfire, including evacuation. Residents should be urged to accurately understand their level of risk in these situations, create evacuation plans and follow directions from the proper authorities. The 2016 Chimney Tops 2 Fire in Tennessee killed 14 people and injured more than 200; the National Institute of Standards and Technology conducted research on the factors that influenced people’s evacuation decisions during the event and found that only 5% of survey participants had previously experienced a wildfire evacuation. While less than a quarter of the respondents reported receiving an official evacuation warning, the majority of the 14,000 people who finally evacuated did so only after seeing or being impacted by flames, embers and smoke, or when their homes or rental properties actually caught fire – situations that could easily have resulted in additional injuries and deaths. Funding social science research into how these warnings are delivered, received and acted upon can help guide messaging and help prioritize programmatic strategies for convincing people to take the actions that will save lives and property.
In 2017 and again in 2018, large, rapidly spreading wildfires in Northern California resulted in shocking numbers of deaths: 42 in the 2017 fires, and 85 in the 2018 Camp Fire that destroyed the community of Paradise, where the average age of the people who died in the fire was 73. Most who perished in Paradise died in their homes or immediately outside them. These individuals, many of whom lived alone, may not have believed the warnings, if they received a warning at all, and were unable to self-rescue. Paradise and other fire events have demonstrated that older and disabled populations are often overlooked in emergency planning, and that much more needs to be done to understand how these people receive and act on warnings.
While action at the individual level – including volunteer efforts such as NFPA’s Firewise USA – is key for building community resilience and preparedness, leadership from all levels of government is essential in the effort to create a larger public that is more informed about wildfire and better prepared for a future with increased wildfire activity. To reach all 70,000 communities at risk from wildfire in the US, every state should increase its efforts to educate and advise property owners, and they should pursue partners to expand their reach and presence within communities.
The urgency is now
The long list of recent destructive wildfires in the US is a stark reminder that the continued loss of life, property and local economic vitality is unacceptable. Solutions are regularly suggested from every quarter, but to truly solve the wildfire problem will require a holistic approach – it is the only way we will be able to outthink wildfire.
NFPA’s ambitious call to eliminate the loss of communities from wildfire by 2050 is akin to the progressive response to urban conflagrations seen in the US and globally in the 19th and 20th centuries, a devastating problem that was addressed, and solved, through a determined, long-term, holistic approach. To address the challenge of wildfire, no stakeholder can wait until 2048. The residents at risk live in this challenge now. Our natural landscapes need proper management now. The resiliency of home construction and composition to most effectively face wildfire risks needs to be addressed now. Codes and standards designed to strengthen local resiliency must be in use and enforced now. We need to ensure that our local fire services are neither overburdened nor underprepared to meet the wildfire challenge now.
And your involvement at the global level must begin now. Whether you are in Southern California, the South of France or Southeast Asia, visit the Outthink Wildfire online resources to learn what role you can play and how to begin creating a plan to achieve this goal in your local community. Make the loss of communities to wildfire a lesson of history, not a part of our global future.
For more information, go to www.nfpa.org/About-NFPA/Outthink-Wildfire