Loss of life and property are not inevitable outcomes of wildfire, says the head of NFPA's new Wildland Fire Division
NFPA Journal, March/April 2010
By Dave Nuss
Wildfire is an inevitable process of nature. What also seems inevitable-the result of climate change, beetle infestations that are producing more dead trees, and continued human development in wildland areas-is an increase in years to come in the likelihood and severity of wildland fires and their impact.
What is not inevitable, however, is the continued significant loss of property and threat to life as a consequence of those fires.
For the past eight years, NFPA, through its highly successful Firewise program, has played a significant role in reducing the impact of wildfire throughout the country. Firewise is a program designed to involve homeowners, community leaders, planners, developers, and others to protect people, property, and natural resources from the risk of wildland fire by creating fire-adapted communities. The program is designed specifically to reduce the inevitability of property loss and threat to life. Now closing in on 600 recognized communities, Firewise is a perfect example of an outstanding program that relies on collaboration with many entities and agencies for its success. NFPA has also shown, through the Fire Safe Cigarette campaign and the Fire Sprinkler Initiative, that a well-orchestrated campaign that draws on all the program areas at NFPA, coupled with coordination with our existing and new partners, can lead to success.
That's my vision for the newly created Wildland Fire Protection Division here at NFPA: continue to build on our success with Firewise while creating new and effective partnerships. Firewise will continue to serve as the cornerstone of our efforts to be proactive in reducing the potential threat of wildland fires to people and property. At the same time, we will identify and implement other strategies that use NFPA's expertise in public outreach, education, research, data analysis, and technical code and standard development to create a collaborative effort with our partners and other organizations such as the U.S. Forest Service, the National Association of State Foresters, and the International Association of Fire Chiefs, to name a few. An equally important part of the strategy is to reach out and listen to our partners, members, and other associations and organizations to help us identify areas where NFPA can make an impact on wildland fire losses.
As a westerner, I have seen and experienced firsthand the effects of wildland fires, from my days as a red-card-carrying rookie firefighter who quickly realized that structural firefighting was a much more controlled event than wildland fires to the weeks of severe smoke conditions in the Denver area as a result of the Hayman fire in 2002. I have also seen firsthand that the devastation so often associated with wildfires does not have to occur; there are many examples from every major wildland fire in the United States that illustrate the positive effects of an individual property owner or community embracing the concepts of fire-adaptive strategies to reduce the risk. We have all seen the pictures of that lone house that remains standing among all the destruction: that's the one whose owners practiced Firewise principles and survived.
After more than 20 years as a regulator in municipal government, I understand clearly that people don't want to be told what to do with their homes and property. They must be compelled to take action on their own to do the right thing. It is making and relaying that compelling argument, the way NFPA did with fire-safe cigarettes, for example, that holds the future to success in reducing the inevitability of the impact on people and homes in the wildland urban interface. As an organization, NFPA is more than equipped and qualified to do the job.
There are several areas that I feel we have opportunities to make a difference. One is seeking and analyzing data to help us focus our efforts, beyond just tracking acres burned and dollars spent on suppression efforts. Analysis of structural-fire-loss data has provided detailed information on an array of trends, from losses associated with careless smoking to the effectiveness of life-safety strategies such as residential sprinklers, and we need to take a similar data-driven approach to help us with the wildland fire problem. We can also conduct research that can help quantify that the actions people take on their homes and property will have the desired outcome and effectiveness.
Technical codes and standards prescribe ways to "harden" a structure to withstand a wildland fire, and research could provide information that shows the effectiveness and worthiness of those prescriptive provisions and possibly identify other areas that need to be addressed.
We can also develop and promulgate technical codes and standards through our balanced process that can provide specific requirements for land use, building construction, access and water supply, and emergency planning and procedures when regulation is an appropriate intervention. We can expand our outreach effort with Firewise and other messaging that provides the information that people need to take on the responsibility of making their own property resistive to wildland fire. We can pull all of these initiatives together in cooperation with our existing partners, such as the U.S. and state forest services, and new partners such as the Institute for Business and Home Safety and the American Planning Association, and make that compelling argument that causes people to act and take responsibility for their own well being.
In a recent meeting of the IAFC's Ready, Set, Go Coordinating Committee, someone commented that the public needs to understand that firefighters may not show up if your house is threatened in a wildland fire; there just aren't enough of them to protect every structure. I thought that was a great way to sum up the wildland fire problem. People must prepare themselves and their homes to withstand the event unaided. That's the premise behind Firewise, and the challenge we face is how best to compel them to take on that responsibility.
Dave Nuss is manager of NFPA's Wildland Fire Protection Division.