The Wildfire Imperative
NFPA Journal®, September/October 2012
By its nature, NFPA is a reactive organization — we depend on participants in the codes and standards development process to bring forward proposals that address practical problems in the field. As the most influential advocate for fire safety, though, we must also be proactive. Waiting for the world to come to us for answers is not good enough, and defeats the purpose of our safety mission. That’s why we try to stay ahead of events that we believe will eventually have a major effect on fire, life safety, and electrical safety.
A case in point is how NFPA is dealing with the burgeoning wildfire problem. Some might say we’re already behind the curve, considering the huge wildfires occurring in the West this year and last. In fact, NFPA has been pushing hard for years through our Firewise® program for a much more active approach to reducing risk in the wildland/urban interface, and we have recently expanded the scope of our work with a grant from the U. S. Forest Service to launch the Fire Adapted Communities™ program. This issue’s story on the recent Colorado wildfires illustrates both the growing prevalence of wildfire as well as the importance of communities taking steps to minimize its threat. A proactive approach is essential; as devastating and costly as some recent wildfires have been, they may only be harbingers of what we’ll face in the future. Wildfire could be the major fire protection challenge of the next generation.
We have a choice. We can continue to respond to this phenomenon as if it were no different than it has ever been, or we can look ahead, take notice of the clear scientific evidence, and recognize that the entire fire protection community is not committing anywhere near enough time, effort, and knowledge to exploring the implications of this colossal problem. Wildfires will drain our resources and threaten more communities in the coming decades if we do not act with a greater sense of urgency and commitment, starting now.
At NFPA we do not intend to wait. We are going to play a bigger role in focusing the attention of the fire service and policymakers on the social, economic, and public safety implications of the accelerating wildfire problem. This issue will require an all-out effort, including greater collaboration among the fire service organizations, the federal government, state and local governments, and the building industry. Much valuable work has already been done, and the Fire Adapted Communities coalition — a new initiative with participation from NFPA, the USDA Forest Service, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and other leading organizations — is providing a clear path of leadership. NFPA has also re-organized its Wildland Fire Division and located it in Colorado to be closer to the center of activity. We have set a goal of having more than 800 Firewise communities by the end of the year, and with the support of the Forest Service we expect the Fire Adapted Communities program to get off to a fast start.
But that is not enough. The whole community concerned with fire safety should understand that this is no longer a regional or seasonal problem that can be solved by a single agency, but an issue of urgent national concern with implications for all of us. At NFPA we are not waiting for this problem to get further out of control. We are acting now.