More. Bigger. Costlier.
The bad news: Research suggests that global warming could result in a larger and more destructive wildfire problem in decades to come. The good news: We know it’s coming, and we can do something about it.
NFPA Journal®, November/December 2009
By Michele Steinberg
As I write this, wildfires in the Angeles National Forest and in other areas north of Los Angeles continue to burn an enormous area—nearly 160,000 acres (67,750 hectares), at last count. I am deeply distressed at these devastating losses: two firefighters killed; 78 homes, 2 commercial properties, and 85 outbuildings destroyed; vast areas of public forest land scorched by the so-called "Station Fire." I watch the video, listen to the reports, read the bloggers’ diatribes, and think with a sigh, "Here we go again."
News reports focus on the cause, which is suspected arson, on the tragic firefighter deaths, and on the sheer size of the fire. Bloggers point fingers at "culprits," including, but not limited to, the federal government, the state government, the fire service, and environmentalists. Even climate change is blamed. But there is little acknowledgement that southern California’s climate, topography, and vegetative species are linked inextricably with wildfire, regardless of what human beings say or do. Nor is there discussion of how the design of our homes and neighborhoods fails or succeeds in adapting to the reality of wildfire.
When I think about these fires, though—whether it’s the Station Fire or any one of countless other wildfires around the United States—I can’t help but see images of homes reduced to ashes, surrounded by green trees and brush. Sometimes those images include surviving homes in the background. For me, that’s a major part of the wildland fire story that remains untold, and largely unacknowledged: how we adapt to living with wildfire and what it means for our lives and our property. Never mind trying to project what the problem will look like 5, 10, or 20 years into the future; it seems we can’t even see the reality in front of our noses today. What will we do when this moving target—the conditions that create a dangerous interface between our homes and nature’s fire—moves in on us even more than it already has?
Research into global climate change suggests that the future of wildland fire is going to be characterized by a lot of "here we go again." Leading researchers have examined a variety of scenarios for how climate change will affect certain patterns that, in turn, will affect the frequency and magnitude of wildfires well into this century. Research using different future climate scenarios predicts that the amount of biomass such as forests, scrub, grass, and brush consumed by wildfire will at least double in the western United States over this century.
The two major natural phenomena involve wet/dry cycles of precipitation and temperature change. The scenarios being studied show that even wet periods contribute to the losses by allowing more buildup of vegetation, which means more fuel for future fires. As temperatures rise, more hot weather contributes to more wildfire where there is more fuel. And it’s not only affecting the western states. Research indicates climate change impacts will significantly affect the eastern United States, as well, even in places where people have rarely experienced wildfire. Some of the models attempt to take into account the effects of fire suppression and other human activities, both those that reduce fire risks in the short and long term, and those that exacerbate the likelihood of fire ignitions. Overriding all of the human activity, though, are the global patterns that cannot be changed: warming and cooling, El Niño and La Niña years, wet and dry cycles.
The strong evidence for a future with more and possibly larger—and more damaging—wildfires can be overwhelming. The good news, however, is that the research and modeling amount to an early warning of the wildfire problem to come. We have time to take action that will allow us to better adapt to wildfire. If we choose to acknowledge the reality of wildland fires, we can better anticipate how our cities and towns and neighborhoods will fare when confronted with fire when—not if—it arrives.
Myth vs. reality
As support manager of the Firewise Communities program at NFPA, I have a great opportunity to do a lot of myth-busting on the topic of wildfires. It’s probably the most important part of my job. If anything is going to change for the better, if we’re going to stop these devastating losses of life, property, and natural resources, we’ve got to start by arming ourselves with a clear understanding of the problem.
Clarity can be tough to find when the topic is wildfire, however. News stories referring to wildfire as "evil" or as a sentient being capable of anger make me crazy. I’m astonished when TV reporters stand in front of a destroyed house talking about the apparent randomness of fire and how it "seemed to select" homes to burn when I can see a green tree, unscathed, alongside the ruins. It’s upsetting to hear people who lost their homes wonder how it could happen to them, especially if they live somewhere like Texas or Florida or South Carolina, since conventional wisdom holds that wildfires only happen in California. And it’s tremendously frustrating that the public expects the fire department to run in and save the day.
The reality is very different. First, wildfire is a natural phenomenon and a normal, seasonal occurrence in much of North America. Wildfire is a dynamic process, not a living thing. As such, it obeys the laws of physics and can only exist and grow with fuel, heat, and oxygen. And it doesn’t distinguish among fuel sources: a tree, a shrub, a car, a house, anything that burns can keep a fire alive. While wildfire can behave in a seemingly random pattern of fuel consumption due to topography and weather conditions, especially wind, ignitions and destruction of homes are driven by the characteristics of the home itself and the area around it within a few hundred feet. When homes burn and trees and brush survive, it means the home was more vulnerable to fire than the vegetation.
Firefighters can’t instantly extinguish these large blazes and save every home. Extreme wildfire conditions put dozens or hundreds of homes in danger simultaneously, exposing them to large flames and wind-driven embers from the main fire. Limited water supply, difficult access for fire trucks, and simple math—the number of pieces of apparatus versus the number of homes exposed—means fire suppression alone won’t allow homes to survive. Telling residents "we can’t save you" is a tough message for firefighters to convey. Residents may react with anger, but I’m more concerned about those who feel powerless in the face of wildfire. They probably won’t do much to protect themselves, either.
How can these messages get to the people that need them, and in a way that can inspire them to act? We know that Firewise messages have made a dent. (I do a little dance around the office whenever a particularly good Firewise success story comes my way.) Because home destruction is directly related to the condition of the home itself and everything around it within 100 to 200 feet (30 to 61 meters), an area called the Home Ignition Zone, it’s usually up to the property owner to make Firewise-recommended changes. When people understand how this home ignition process occurs, they realize they can do something to make their homes safer.
Last summer, I chatted with a Colorado home-owner on her patio about home ignition research. I told her that the 30 feet (9 meters) we recommend as a minimum for removing debris and reducing the volume of live vegetation came from fire experiments; researchers burned large trees to create a wall of flame to see how long it would take to ignite a wood wall, at how many feet away. At just 30 feet (9 meters) away, there was no ignition most of the time, just some charring, because the large flames burned through the area so quickly.
"Wow!" the woman said. "I had never heard of that! That’s amazing! Now I understand why the forestry experts wanted us to clear brush out to that distance." That’s the kind of conversation that’s been happening in Firewise workshops since 1999, among state and federal forestry agencies, home-owners, the fire service, and community leaders.
Hooked on safety
And it goes beyond talk. The national Firewise Communities/USA recognition program provides the call to action for neighbors to work together to reduce wildfire risk. Nearly 500 communities in 38 states have successfully overcome the myths of wildfire and see the reality of their situation both today and into the future. They’ve organized committees of residents who, with help from fire and forestry professionals, identify major wildfire risk factors for their communities, create action plans, and begin to chip away, quite literally, at the problem areas. They clear brush and debris, chip it up and decide how to dispose of it, replace flammable roofs, screen openings under decks and porches, and create retrofit and maintenance projects to address their particular hazards.
Once they get going, they keep going. David Yegge, a Firewise advocate in a southern California fire department, has seen the momentum building in local neighborhoods. When I asked if property owners saw a benefit from doing the work, he replied, "There is an immediate sense of safety—they can tell the difference. That is very evident to people." Keith Worley, a professional arborist in Colorado, has been working for a decade in his own neighborhood and surrounding areas to reduce wildfire fuels. He jokingly likens his activities to that of a drug pusher. "When they see how good a little clearing and cleaning up looks," he says, "I have them hooked."
It’s exciting to see so many communities engaged in their own safety and taking personal responsibility for the existing conditions that they can modify. But it’s the long-term approach of planning and regulation that is truly going to change how this country adapts to the increased threat of wildfire on increasingly developed lands. True adaptation can only be said to occur when we begin to design, build, and maintain our homes and communities with wildfire in mind from the outset. NFPA’s codes and standards go a long way toward filling this need, as does a new Firewise publication, Safer from the Start: A Guide to Firewise-Friendly Developments, available at the Firewise website, www.firewise.org.
The tremendous population growth in the U.S. between 1990 and 2000—the largest census-to-census increase in history, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census—created huge development pressures across the country. Thousands of communities emerged in former rural and agricultural areas, as well as in wildlands, where wildfire had been part of the natural backdrop for millennia. With this pressure to develop, combined with a lack of wildfire risk awareness among planners, safety authorities, architects, and developers, it’s little wonder that areas called the "wildland/urban interface" now number in the tens of thousands.
I routinely meet people who live in those interface areas. As part of our Firewise Planning Workshops, we developed a fictional, computer-generated community called Falls County to see what a truly hazardous wildfire area looks like. Some 3,000 people have taken a virtual tour of Falls County, and time and again they’ve said to me, "You must have used my community for this model." They immediately identified a host of dangerous characteristics from their own neighborhoods, including one-way-in access; long, winding driveways; steep slopes; flammable roofs; and unhealthy, heavy vegetation.
Today, we have no excuse for ignoring the reality of the wildfire danger, including the predictions of climate-change experts. We know that application of sound design, development, construction, and maintenance practices can save homes and lives in a wildfire. We’ve proven that educated, motivated residents can take action to protect themselves. My vision is that, one day, devastating wildfires will be such unusual occurrences that I’ll have to look for another line of work. Thanks to NFPA and its members, large losses of life from single structure fires, such as the infamous Cocoanut Grove fire in Boston, are rare and shocking. I envision a time when wildfire losses will elicit the same kind of shock.
I’d prefer that to heaving yet another sigh and thinking, "here we go again."
Michele Steinberg is NFPA's Firewise Communities Support Manager.
The Next Chapter
NFPA’s growing involvement with the wildfire problem
NFPA’s role in wildfire safety and awareness isn’t limited to the Firewise program. Over the next year, the Association will take on more wildfire-related challenges, including providing training and outreach to fire service professionals, initiatives to address life safety in community and building design, and training in emergency operations and evacuation during wildfire. In addition, it will provide a more visible presence for Firewise materials and information on its website and in its catalog,
Those expanded efforts represent the next chapter in NFPA’s involvement with the wildfire problem. NFPA became involved in a task group that created the National Wildland/Urban Interface Fire Program following a severe fire season in 1985, which saw 1,400 homes lost nationally, 600 in Florida alone. Since 1986, NFPA has administered this program, best known today as the home of Firewise, through an agreement with the USDA Forest Service, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the National Association of State Foresters.
NFPA’s 113-year history of consensus-based life safety codes and standards provide a wealth of information and guidance for virtually every fire and electrical issue known, including wildfire. NFPA 1144, Reducing Structure Ignition Hazards from Wildland Fire; NFPA 1142, Water Supplies for Suburban and Rural Fire Fighting; and NFPA 1141, Fire Protection Infrastructure for Land Development in Suburban and Rural Areas, all draw on sound research and decades of experience in reducing losses to life and property from wildfire. While many recognized Firewise Communities/USA sites are happily making their neighborhoods safer without benefit of these standards as formal regulations, many municipalities have adopted these principles into vegetation management ordinances, fire protection regulations, and permitting standards. Newly developed subdivisions can use the standards not only in design, but also in the governance of community associations that are responsible for the long-term growth and maintenance of the subdivision.
- Michele Steinberg
Mapping the future of wildfire
As part of their research on future wildfires and the impact of those fires on the air we breathe, a group of Harvard atmospheric scientists and their colleagues predict that large parts of the western United States could see dramatic increases in the area burned by wildfire over the next several decades. The map above shows the predicted percentage increases in area burned between now and approximately 2055.
In a study published in June in the Journal of Geophysical Research, the scientists predict that the overall geographic area typically burned by wildfires in the western U.S. could increase by about 50 percent between now and the 2050s due mainly to rising temperatures, with some areas experiencing much higher rates. The greatest increases in area burned, ranging from roughly 75 percent to 180 percent, would occur in the forests of the Pacific Northwest and the Rocky Mountains, indicated on the map in orange and red, respectively. (While the large gray area in the center of the region includes pockets that may see a decline in wildfire area burned, the researchers say most of that area will experience at least a nominal increase in the area burned.)
The team examined a 25-year record of observed meteorology and fire statistics to identify factors that could predict area burned for each ecosystem in the western U.S. To see how these factors would change in the future, they ran a global climate model out to 2055. This scenario, one of several devised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, describes a world with rapid economic growth and balanced energy generation from fossil and alternative fuels, and leads to a moderate warming of the earth’s average surface temperature, about 3o F (1.6o C) by 2050.