Trauma + Triumph
A look back at an eventful fire season, and reasons for optimism in the new year
NFPA Journal®, January/February 2012
The past year of wildfires was devastating. The life and property losses throughout the United States and Canada were of historic proportions — Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona all experienced their largest wildfires on record — and the road to recovery for affected communities will require resources and patience. I recently toured Slave Lake in Alberta, Canada, where more than 400 structures were lost to wildfire last May in one of the costliest disasters in Canadian history. Experts estimate that rebuilding will cost $1 billion and take more than five years.
Wildfire aftermath in Slave Lake, Alberta, Canada. (Photo: Newscom)
As public awareness of the wildfire problem grows, so does our responsibility at NFPA to take action. In October, NFPA Journal published a special issue dedicated to wildland fire, and the magazine recently asked me to write a regular column on the topic, one intended to bring you the latest buzz from the field and insights into our work at NFPA’s Wildland Fire Operations Division. It is with excitement and optimism that I write this first column.
But how is optimism possible, in the face of last year’s wildfire season? In addition to the traumatic incidents of 2011, there was also tremendous progress. NFPA revived its Backyards and Beyond conference in Denver in October, providing an important venue for homeowners, professionals, and Wildland Fire Operations Division staff to share lessons learned and to trumpet successes. I could not keep up with the incredible amount of information being exchanged as I ran between events. Conference presentations are available at firewise.org.
Another blossoming initiative is our work on Fire Adapted Communities. As NFPA’s program manager of this new initiative, I will be working with the U.S. Forest Service, the Ad Council, and other lead agencies to elevate public awareness of community wildfire risk. Taking the right steps in advance can not only minimize damage to homes and property, but also increase public safety, protect the infrastructure and business, save millions of dollars, and ensure future tourism and local recreation opportunities. Through the creation of a new website, fireadapted.org, and a media campaign, the initiative will help communities and residents learn about and take these steps.
Research also continues to support the ongoing message of NFPA’s Firewise Communities program. A recent preliminary report prepared by the U.S. Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station looked at the Fourmile Canyon Fire in Boulder County, Colorado, in 2010, which was the most destructive wildfire in Colorado’s history in terms of structure loss. The findings underscore how the design, materials, and maintenance of a home and its immediate surroundings are integral to the home’s ability to withstand a wildfire. Similar lessons learned by the Texas Forest Service show that, although more than 2,900 homes were lost last year in Texas, nearly 39,000 homes in fire-prone areas were saved — a success attributed in part to Firewise mitigation principles, including homeowner responsibility, home hardening, and fuel management.
We know there will be more fires in 2012 — dire weather predictions point to continued fire activity in already drought-stricken areas. But there will also be progress. We can expect to see the launch of an informative Fire Adapted Communities website and media campaign next spring and summer, more recognized Firewise communities throughout the U.S., continued efforts in other countries to elevate wildfire mitigation and outreach programs, and ongoing domestic and international collaborations. Stay tuned — I look forward to reporting back.
Molly Mowery is program manager for Fire Adapted Communities and International Outreach.