The Wildfire Priority
NFPA Journal®, October 2011
I wish we could say that the major wildfires we’ve seen in Texas and elsewhere this year were flukes caused by unusual weather conditions. But that’s clearly not the case. Wildfire is not a problem limited to one region of the country, but rather an urgent national problem that will continue to grow and cost us billions of dollars in the coming decades unless we do more now to develop better policies to manage it.
The potential losses could be staggering. There are around 45 million homes that abut or lie in wildland areas, so it is easy to conceive of whole communities being wiped out as they were in Texas. The good news is that there are things that we can do to make us better prepared to meet this challenge.
The first is to educate people who live in the vast wildland-urban interface, or WUI, on how they can take practical steps to protect their homes and communities. Through the Firewise® Communities Program, NFPA, working with the U.S. Forest Service, has provided practical support to people living in fire-prone areas to make their communities safer from wildfires. The concept is that neighbors come together, do an assessment of the threat, and develop strategies to mitigate. These can range from removing potential fuel from around houses to recommendations on fire-resistant building materials. There are now more than 700 communities in the United States that have taken steps to become recognized as Firewise Communities.
We are just beginning work on a new program with the Forest Service for fire adapted communities. This program is designed to raise public awareness by providing information and resources to help citizens reduce their wildfire risk and take collaborative action within their communities. Where Firewise focuses primarily on reducing ignition for existing homes and communities, the Fire Adapted Communities Program encompasses a broader scope that brings together landowners and land management agencies to address issues such as community planning and development, evacuation planning, landscape-scale fuel management, and regulations in the wildland-urban interface — all of which work together to create a human environment that is truly “adaptable” to nature’s fire.
We are proud to work with other organizations that have long been involved in looking at various aspects of the wildfire problem. For years, the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) has been a leader in promoting ways to protect the public, as well as firefighters, from wildfires. We will continue to coordinate our activities with the IAFC to ensure that NFPA codes and standards dealing with the protection of firefighter health and safety meet the needs of the fire service.
The problem of wildland fires is not just an American problem but an international one. Huge wildland fires have caused major destruction and dislocation of populations in recent years in Australia, China, Southern Europe, and Russia. As we develop our strategies, we will continue to consult with our international colleagues to ensure that the lessons learned from these experiences are put to use to attack the wildfire problem globally.
It is clear that for at least the next generation the threat of wildfires will be one of the most important fire problems that the world will face, consuming more of our resources than anyone could have imagined just a few years ago. The threat today — to millions of people, to their homes, and to their communities — is exponentially larger than it used to be, and the economic consequences of wildfire over the next several years incalculable. We have to make this a higher priority and we must do it now.