THE NEW YEAR OPENED WITH A WILDFIRE, and its impact was familiar. During the week of January 4, a 31,000-acre wildfire sparked by lightning and fanned by strong winds ran through residential and interface areas. Volunteer fire services fought to control the blaze, and at its height more than a dozen aircraft were engaged in its suppression. Rain at week’s end brought the mixed blessing of wet conditions that helped bring the fire under control, but also lightning that ignited additional grass fires. In the end, 27 homes were destroyed or damaged and 130 outbuildings were lost. There were no human fatalities, but there were more than 100 reported smoke-related injuries. Thousands were evacuated from residential areas. Livestock and wildlife were not as lucky.
To many readers, the timing of this fire might seem odd given that most of the United States was in an artic freeze in early January. If we flip the globe upside down, though, we realize that there is no off-season for wildfire—it’s high summer in Australia, and the Adelaide Hills fires of early January burned in the suburban areas northeast of the city of Adelaide. With dry weather, high winds, and temperatures of 95 degrees Fahrenheit and above, it’s easy to imagine fire conditions like those found in Colorado, California, or Georgia last summer, or to contemplate our own coming fire season just months away.
The Australian fires made me think of the often-raised concern over “Americanizing” the wildfire issue, and the risk of improperly viewing international connections as simply an avenue for bringing solutions to others. I believe international outreach is not a matter of what “they” can learn from “us,” but rather an opportunity to leverage the ability to create positive conversation, one that teaches NFPA valuable lessons that can enrich its programs, messaging, and standards. In both policy and community outreach, it is important that we embrace this truly global view of fire risk, and I am heartened that NFPA President Jim Pauley and NFPA’s leadership team are developing an international outreach strategy.
In December, my wife and I visited close friends of ours in Cape Town, South Africa. While we were there, I had the opportunity to meet with the staff of Kishugu/Firewise South Africa. The organization worked with NFPA in 2006 on the mutual issue of community wildfire preparedness and adopted the Firewise® Communities model as a best-practice tool.
As we discussed the risk of bushfires that afternoon, our conversation illuminated the work we are equally engaged in around program messaging and outreach. As manager of NFPA’s Firewise and Fire Adapted Communities® programs, it was enlightening for me to learn how they tackled the same issues of language translation, content updating, messaging, partnerships, and community building. As a result, I have a broader understanding of the value of the program’s tools and how they can enhance what Firewise can do for other users, both at home and abroad.
NFPA works with organizations and agencies on wildfire understanding in Canada, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and Australia. The issue connects us to work in Chile, across Asia, and southern Europe. When we consider the global scope of fire risk and engage with it to enrich our understanding, it means we’re making our programs, messaging, and standards even more valuable to that truly international conversation. And it means the people we’re talking to will place even greater value on the resources and expertise NFPA brings to the mutual challenge ahead.