Through a series of worldwide partnerships, research endeavors, and community practices to prevent wildfire damage, NFPA’s Wildland Fire Operations Division is working to save lives and property on an international scale
NFPA Journal®, October 2011
By Fred Durso, JR.
One evening in April, Ed Brown and his wife, Val Hall, left their Fort Collins, Colorado, home as wildfire approached and drove to the safety of a friend’s house. From there, they could see thick black smoke emanating from nearby Crystal Mountain and hear propane tanks exploding in the distance. They returned home the next morning to discover their house was the only one in the neighborhood not impacted by wildfire, which destroyed 13 homes and burned nearly 3,000 acres (1,214 hectares).
Brown attributes the save to implementing home fireproofing techniques developed by NFPA’s Firewise® Communities Program, which encourages a proactive approach to mitigate wildfire damage through techniques that safeguard homes and neighborhoods. "We have a metal roof, tree branches trimmed up to 20 feet (6 meters) off the ground, and an area around the house that has been grazed by goats," Brown says. "The proven principles of wildfire damage prevention saved our home."
Firewise is just one aspect of NFPA’s expanding wildfire efforts. Through its Wildland Fire Operations Division, created in 2010, NFPA is establishing itself as a global authority on wildfire education, code delopment, and research-specific endeavors. New partnerships with key organizations, including the U.S. Forest Service and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), have helped disseminate wildfire safety principles and community preparedness procedures to a broad U.S. audience. A recent study initiated by NFPA has taken a broad look at the brush, grass, and forest fires that occur across the U.S., while additional projects evaluate the effectiveness of codes and standards on wildfire issues. Other countries with wildfire threats of their own, most notably South Africa and Canada, have utilized NFPA’s mitigation principles while sharing what they’ve learned in the process.
"The Wildland Fire Operations Division was created to recognize the fact that there are many pieces to the wildfire problem that need to be addressed," says Division Manager Dave Nuss. "When you look at the losses associated with wildfires, education and community programs like Firewise are a component of the solution. One of the areas where we’ve taken the lead is on community-based fire protection programs. Since the division was formed, we’ve taken a look at the whole concept of wildland fire protection, and we’ve been able to identify our niche with what we’re good at and where it’s better to partner with other associations and agencies."
Striving for similar goals
NFPA’s expanded wildfire efforts come at a time when these fires are wreaking havoc across the U.S. Nearly 8 million acres (3.2 million hectares) have burned this year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, and a number of states have experienced their worst wildfires on record. As more people opt to live in the wildland-urban interface, or WUI — the areas where development occurs in and around fire-prone wildlands — the damage caused by wildfires grows. Estimates on yearly property damage and other economic impacts of wildland fire vary, but can reach as much as $100 billion.
To address these far-reaching problems, NFPA’s Wildland Fire Operations Division is working with national and international agencies with a similar mission. Last year, IAFC enacted its Ready, Set, Go! program, which utilizes the fire service to teach preparedness procedures and evacuation strategies to people living in communities with a high risk of wildfire. The "Ready" portion is comprised solely of Firewise principles, such as creating "defensible space" around a home, space intended to stop wildfires from encroaching onto the property.
Earlier this year, NFPA partnered with the U.S. Forest Service and a diverse group of national agencies to implement the Fire Adapted Communities Program, which will educate residents on how to reduce the threat and consequences of wildfires through a series of community-wide efforts. (See "The Push to Adapt," page 27.) NFPA has also worked with the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to develop computer software that will assess a homeowner’s wildland fire risk and suggest modifications best suited for the home’s exterior. "People are looking to us for potential partnerships," says Nuss. "I don’t know if there will be many endeavors we’ll do on our own, because wildland fire is too big of an issue. It just makes more sense to partner with other associations and agencies to further our goals."
While NFPA already has a series of related codes and standards providing guidance on land development, structure ignition hazards, water supply, and wildland fire management (see "Wildfire Standards," page 60), partnering organizations are increasingly interested in exploring how further development of codes and standards can better guide wildfire mitigation. Nuss met with IAFC and the National Governors Association this year regarding the potential development of a national mass evacuation guide or standard outlining such procedures. The Fire Protection Research Foundation is overseeing a study for the Wildland Fire Operations Division, expected later this year, that will examine regulatory and planning tools, including codes and standards, that address all aspects of community wildfire risks. Under analysis are zoning and landscaping ordinances, building and fire codes, and WUI code regulations.
As the role of NFPA’s Wildland Division continues to expand, so does its presence in the western U.S. In September, NFPA opened a new regional office in Denver. "If we’re going to be a key player in wildland fire and involved in all of these other agencies, then a western presence is needed and appropriate," says Nuss, who served as a career firefighter in Colorado and Oregon for more than 22 years. "When NFPA created the division, there was an understanding that wildfire isn’t only a western phenomenon. However, wildland fires are predominantly recognized as a major western issue, and to have a presence out west shows our level of commitment to be part of the solution."
Since 1993, the Firewise Communities Program (see "Informed + Prepared," page 28) has been a widely recognized component in a series of national efforts to safeguard people and property against the threat of wildfire — not just wildland-urban interface fires, but all manner of brush, grass, and forest fires that occur around the country.
The extent of the problem was captured in NFPA’s Brush, Grass, and Forest Fires report, published last year. (For an excerpt of that report, see page 73.) According to the report, between 2004 and 2008 U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated average of 357,000 brush, grass, and forest fires per year — nearly a quarter of all reported fires. On average, 4,800 structures were involved in these fires each year.
Michele Steinberg, manager of NFPA’s Firewise Communities Program, describes the report as "an eye opener," and says Firewise mitigation tactics are useful in safeguarding structures against these kinds of fires, too. "It was exciting to see that we can overcome the notion of ‘we don’t have a wildfire problem here’ by showing communities in the eastern, southern, and midwestern states that, in fact, they do have a wildfire problem," Steinberg says of the report. "Every year, fire departments spend a lot of resources and put their lives at risk in areas where people don’t think there’s a problem."
Steinberg has seen the number of communities officially adopting Firewise principles swell to more than 700 this year after NFPA established a formal recognition program a decade ago. To reach its goal of establishing 1,000 Firewise Communities by 2013, NFPA recently hired six regional Firewise advisors to assist neighborhoods new to the program while supporting ongoing efforts at existing sites. State forestry organizations have community liaisons that assist residents with such tasks, but Steinberg says their ability and capacity for support vary. "The only way to solve the issue of homes burning down is to go to communities and talk about how these homes ignite and how to prevent that," she says. "People want to do the right thing, but sometimes they don’t know what it is."
Fighting the common misconception that there are costs associated with implementing voluntary programs like Firewise, NFPA continues to offer its materials for free via its revamped Firewise website, firewise.org. "I’m excited that we have reached 700 Firewise Communities, but I think that number under-represents the impact we’ve had with this program," Nuss says. "Based on the number of hits to our site and the amount of information we’re shipping out, there are probably thousands of other communities and homeowners individually using Firewise principles that we’ll never know about."
As much as we may tend to associate wildfire mainly with the western U.S., the fact remains that it is a growing international problem. And, just like in the U.S., more and more people around the world want to live in, or at least closer to, wildland areas, which are often those parts of the natural world that are most prone to fire. "How does NFPA position itself beyond Firewise to become the global go-to source for wildfires?," asks Molly Mowery, NFPA’s program manager for Fire Adapted Communities and International Outreach. "With our new division, we have been exploring international initiatives to answer this question."
Certain countries have already taken note of NFPA’s wildland fire efforts, and they want in on the action. After learning about Firewise in 2006, fire safety advocates in South Africa developed their own outreach program, Firewise SA, modeled after NFPA’s program and tailored to the country’s environmental conditions and fire hazards. Earlier this year, Partners in Protection (PiP), a Canadian nonprofit focused on reducing wildland fire loss, signed an agreement with NFPA to further develop PiP’s FireSmart recognition program, which will mirror the mitigation-based approach of the Firewise program.
But the Canadian partnership goes beyond promoting wildfire mitigation principles, says Mowery. "This agreement has been about relationship building and taking advantage of the fact that they’re our neighbors," she says. "They’ve done a lot of research in the wildland fire arena, and they have a similar problem. Yes, there’s a lot they can learn from us, but there are things we can learn from them, too. It goes beyond saying, ‘Here’s our program, now do it like us.’"
Other wildfire-prone countries, including Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Nepal, have also expressed interest in working with NFPA. (For more on NFPA’s international efforts, see "World of Opportunity" on page 36.)
Nuss says the quickest way to inform communities around the world that loss of life and property don’t have to be a part of wildfire is by establishing those connections both here and abroad. "Things are moving fast, but they’re moving in the right direction," he says. "NFPA is making more of an impact than we’ve ever made before."
By Fred Durso, Jr.
The cost of extinguishing U.S. wildland fires is exorbitant — on average, U.S. land management agencies spend $2.6 billion on suppression-related activities each year.
Tired of watching those costs escalate, Congress passed the Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement (FLAME) Act in 2009, which called for the development of a cohesive strategy to best allocate budgets for mitigating, as opposed to merely suppressing, wildland fires in all jurisdictions. Completed last year, the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy outlined specific preventative measures, including the nationwide development of "fire adapted communities" that take direct aim at the wildfire threat.
Through a partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, NFPA is overseeing the development of the Fire Adapted Communities Program, encouraging residents to share the responsibility for mitigating the threat and consequences of wildfires. Communities will have access to information on evacuation planning, forest management, neighborhood hazard planning, home ignitibility, and defensible space via information on a new NFPA website and in a brochure that are scheduled for launch in spring 2012. Whenever applicable, the site will link to relevant information on NFPA’s Firewise website, firewise.org.
"There are a host of programs, including Firewise, that have been successful, and we want to let the public know about them," says Molly Mowery, NFPA’s program manager for Fire Adapted Communities and International Outreach. "The new Fire Adapted Communities website will help people understand all of these existing concepts and pull them together."
Providing guidance on the project and content for the new website is a coalition of eight organizations, including the U.S. Fire Administration, International Association of Fire Chiefs, and the National Association of State Foresters. The Ad Council, another stakeholder and nonprofit that creates public service announcements, will develop a national media campaign on the new program.
As the global threat of wildland fires intensifies, Mowery says community-wide proactive measures can significantly reduce the chances of property devastation due to wildfire — but it starts with individual initiative. "People need to take a personal responsibility for living in the wildland-urban interface," she says.
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Through its Wildland Fire Operations Division, NFPA is establishing itself as a global authority on wildfire.