AUTHOR: Meghan Housewright

plant fire

Recent NC Fire Shines Light on Gaps in Ammonium Nitrate Regulation That No Longer Can be Ignored

With the flames of a North Carolina January 31 fertilizer plant fire now safely extinguished, it’s now time for local, state, and federal officials to focus on fixing the holes that govern ammonium nitrate (AN) storage and handling. On April 17, 2013, a fire in Texas led to the detonation of about 30 tons of AN and the deaths of 15 people, along with the injury of hundreds more, and major destruction to the town of West. Nine years later, the city of Winston-Salem, North Carolina came dangerously close to experiencing the same fate. The fact that fate was avoided should not mean we avoid addressing this issue. In its final report on the West, Texas tragedy, the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB) observed, “This is not to say that West is an anomaly. Many communities in Texas and nationwide are located too close to facilities resembling the [West Fertilizer Company] plant.”[1] The Winston Weaver Fertilizer plant is exactly the situation the CSB was referring to. Like the facility in West, the North Carolina plant began operating mid-century, surrounded by farmers’ fields and few neighbors. Over time, homes, businesses, and other buildings sprung up around it as the town grew. The pattern, both in West and in Winston-Salem is not unique. The American Farmland Trust reports that over 11 million acres of U.S. farmland have been developed over the last 20 years, putting homes and suburban infrastructure next to facilities that manufacture, store, and sell fertilizers and other chemicals. Local planners in places like Winston-Salem, which grew by around 8 percent over the last 10 years, must recognize this hazard and limit development around these locations to compatible uses, like warehouses, not homes and school.  When the fire broke out at the Winston Weaver Fertilizer plant, the fire department promptly called for an evacuation of the surrounding neighborhoods, fearing the detonation of the plant’s 600 tons of AN. Over 6,500 people left their homes in the middle of the night. In addition to a well-prepared fire department though, towns and cities have another tool to save lives and property from hazardous materials like AN—the fire code. When handled and stored properly, AN can be stable. But, when exposed to fire, there is a significant danger of a powerful explosion (see for instance, the recent blast that leveled a portion of Beirut, Lebanon). Recognizing, as the CSB did, that the hazard present in West, Texas was not unique, the technical committee that develops NFPA 400, the National Fire Protection Association’s Hazardous Materials Code, determined fire sprinkler systems in these facilities is a must. They voted in 2015 to make the installation of sprinkler and fire detection systems in new and existing facilities a requirement of the accepted minimum level of safety for any building with over 1000 pounds of AN. The NFPA fire code, NFPA 1, refers users to NFPA 400 for facilities storing AN, and expressly enables the relevant authority to enforce construction requirements—like sprinklers systems—retroactively when warranted by dangerous conditions. Unfortunately, in many places, the laws in place are not this proactive. In the case of Winston-Salem, the North Carolina state fire code does not require facilities like Winston Weaver to meet NFPA 400’s requirements. However, the fire that occurred on January 31st should prompt the North Carolina legislature to require NFPA 400’s retroactive fire protection requirements, especially where an explosion poses a risk to surrounding homes, businesses, schools, hospitals and other community facilities. It should also prompt the North Carolina Building Code Council to amend the state fire code to include the NFPA 400 requirements. Even if the state does not act though, local governments in North Carolina are not powerless. State law permits local jurisdictions to adopt their own fire code provisions so long as those provisions are stricter than those promulgated by the state. In addition to ensuring fire code protection, the CSB made a number of other recommendations to reduce the risk of another West-type catastrophe. For one, state legislatures could enact laws that would require facilities like the Winston Weaver Fertilizer plant to hold general liability insurance policies commensurate with the risk they pose to their surroundings. The CSB investigation revealed that four years before the explosion, West Fertilizer Company (WFC) was dropped by its insurance carrier for failure to address a number of safety concerns identified by the insurer’s inspection process. The $1 million general liability policy WFC turned to instead came with minimal safety inspections. After the explosion, the policy was woefully inadequate to redress the $230 million-plus damage to the town and its residents. More stringent insurance requirements would motivate greater due diligence in identifying and controlling hazards. At the federal level, CSB made recommendations to several agencies. Among those was a call to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to add AN to the list of chemicals covered in its Risk Management Program (RMP). Developed in the 1990s, the RMP regulations require facilities handling listed chemicals to assess the potential worst-case scenarios for communities beyond the fence line, implement hazard controls, and report on these to the agency. As the CSB pointed out, AN’s reactivity, its potential to cause high loss of life, and its presence in high volumes at sites across the country all favor its inclusion on the RMP list. Unfortunately, nearly a decade after the West incident, many of these recommendations remain open. Texas did not adopt stricter insurance requirements and the EPA still hasn’t added AN to the list of chemicals covered by the RMP. However, the EPA’s announced plans to improve health and safety conditions for people living in fence line communities presents an ideal opportunity to revisit how we handle and store AN, and other hazardous materials, and reduce the risk of catastrophic accidents for all communities. North Carolina too must not wait to identify other AN hazards in the state and enact the policies discussed here to prevent another close call—or worse.   [1] U.S. Chemical Safety Board, Investigation Report: West Fertilizer Company Fire & Explosion, January 2016, p 223. [1] § 143-138(e)

New 10-Year Strategy from the U.S. Forest Service to Tackle Wildfire Hazardous Fuel Issue

On January 18, the federal government announced plans to seriously tackle the hazardous fuels that feed that nation’s wildfire crisis. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has long acknowledged the problem created by the dead trees, overgrown undergrowth and brush left by decades of vigorous wildfire suppression, bark beetle infestations and neglect. But, it has been routinely stymied by the lack of resources to address the problem at its true scale—hundreds of millions of acres. On January 18, Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, along with Arizona Senator Mark Kelly, and U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Moore, announced the federal government’s intention to treat 50 million acres1 over the next ten years and have a plan in place for maintaining that work going forward. Years of research from the USFS and others have mapped out large areas of land, known as firesheds, where wildfire ignition would likely expose communities to risk. Through this research, land managers now have a better understanding of how to prioritize and target landscape treatments to get the most risk reduction possible from the smallest footprint of treatment area. The plan released yesterday noted the USFS will use this science to guide its actions, starting with high-risk areas in California, Arizona, Washington, and Oregon. The hazardous conditions of the nation’s forests and grasslands is a major factor in the extreme wildfire conditions on display over the past several years. NFPA’s Outthink Wildfire initiative has called for a significant increase in the federal government’s response to these hazardous conditions through prescribed fire and mechanical thinning. With the funds provided through the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the USFS has nearly $3 billion directly for fuel treatments to kickstart their 10-year initiative. However, as acknowledged in the strategy document released yesterday, this initiative will require policymakers to solve ongoing funding issues, build the sizable workforce necessary to carry this out, and coordinate large projects across multiple jurisdictions—all long-standing challenges. After successive years of punishing wildfires, the Forest Service’s public acknowledgement of the need to greatly increase the scale of fuel reduction, and its commitment to treating 50 million acres of wildfire risk over the next 10 years, is a breakthrough. The impact of it though will depend on the appetite to solve the long-standing implementation barriers like funding and workforce, that currently stand in the way of the hoped for “paradigm shift” in land management. However, with strong advocacy and continued stakeholder engagement, progress on these hard issues can be gained. Treating the hazardous fuel conditions that enable destructive wildfires is critical. However, it is not the only action needed to solve the problem. Science points to a future with more wildfire, even as land management policies seek to mitigate the worst possible outcomes. To live safely in this future, communities must embrace risk reduction policies—codes, retrofits, education, and strong support for their fire departments. Without similarly lofty goals for each of these needs, the end of community destruction by wildfires will remain out of reach. 1 20 million acres of National Fire Land and 30 million acres of other federal, tribal, state, and private lands.
Area in the mountains

From Washington, Big Investments in Wildfire Mitigation on the Horizon

Last week, President Biden visited the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho and then continued to California to see first-hand the devastation wrought by the 200,000-acre Caldor fire. Talking to press from a Cal Fire hangar, he touted the concrete actions taken by his Administration to tackle the 2021 wildfire crisis—raising wages for federal firefighters to the federal minimum, securing aircraft to fight fires from the sky, and using the Defense Production Act to clear manufacturing bottlenecks for hoses to fight fires on the ground. With millions of acres burned so far—and beloved landmarks like the General Sherman now in danger—these actions must be taken to protect lives and communities. However, in terms of mitigating the impact of these fires, there’s nothing yet the President can pull from the oven. But things are cooking. On Capitol Hill, Congress is considering two measures that would make substantial investments in wildfire mitigation. Earlier in the summer, the Senate passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill that contains $1.5 billion for hazardous fuel treatments and a new $500 million program to help communities update and implement Community Wildfire Protection Plans. And now, the House is negotiating the budget reconciliation process—the other part of Biden’s Build Back Better Plan. As part of that 10-year, multi-trillion package, the House Committees on Agriculture and Natural Resources have included over $15 billion for hazardous fuel treatments, hundreds of millions to State, Tribal, and local firefighters to help them with equipment and training to tackle wildfires, and billions to help communities create fuel projects, do treatments on private lands, and clear defensible space around structures. These are all investments that will reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires and blunt their impacts on communities. In July, then U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen, testifying before a Senate Committee, called for a “paradigm shift” in the country’s investment in land management for wildfire mitigation—a doubling to a quadrupling of current forest fuel treatments. After decades of neglect, forests full of burnable material, and now a more arid climate, the billions now under consideration in Congress answer that call. However, if the U.S. is truly going to get ahead of this problem, we need true paradigm shifts in all areas of Outthink Wildfire™, including retrofitting homes in the wildland urban interface (WUI), following the latest codes and best land use practices, and educating residents on steps they need to take to reduce their own risk. Every leader, from the President down to governors, county managers, and mayors, should echo these calls to action. Learn more about the five key tenets of Outthink Wildfire at    
Inspectors looking at a building

How Well Does Your Community Support Safety? Use The New Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem Assessment Tool to Get Answers that Can Help Identify and Address Gaps, and Advocate for Safety Improvements in Your Area

In the rush to assign blame after a tragedy, we’re often drawn to the most obvious culprits. After the devastating 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in London, attention quickly focused on the exterior cladding, which allowed flames from an electrical fire in a single apartment to wrap around the entire building in minutes. That spectacular failure revealed fatal weaknesses in the enforcement of the referenced test methods that were supposed to keep flammable material off buildings. More broadly though, the years of subsequent reviews and inquiries have found under-skilled workmanship from design to execution that allowed safety flaws to creep in. They also found impossibly over-worked inspectors, and residents who did not have the right information to save themselves from the fire. It was more than just the cladding that led to the deaths of 72 people, and the injury of scores more. It’s never just one thing that fails to go to plan. We rely on integrated systems to keep us safe. To illustrate this, NFPA developed the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem. The Ecosystem explains the eight necessary functions—Government Responsibility, Development and Use of Current Codes and Standards, Enforcement of Referenced Standards, Code Compliance, Investment in Safety, a Skilled Workforce, Preparedness and Emergency Response, and an Informed Public—that must work together to support safety. To push this concept further, the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute created a tool to enable users to assess the state of the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem in their own communities. Is your community’s approach to safety green, yellow, orange, or red? The Assessment Tool is designed to help gauge the capacity of the community to support safety. Capacity helps us understand strengths and weaknesses. To assess this, the Tool asks a series of questions that probe whether the right rules are in place; are they enforced? Is there any effort to educate the public on ways they can reduce their own life safety risks? Is there a planning process to avoid development in hazardous places? These questions, and more, focus on the baseline of what’s necessary to support safety and reduce risk, regardless of whether the community is small, medium, or big, urban, rural, or somewhere in-between. Assessing something as complex as the systems that support safety can be challenging. The Ecosystem Assessment Tool breaks this complexity down by looking at the pieces that support each Ecosystem component. Leaders in the fire service, the construction industry, and city officials are likely best suited to spend 30 minutes or so answering the Assessment Tool questions. After you’ve submitted your answers, the Tool provides a rating from green (excellent support for safety) all the way to red (poor support for safety) along with a more detailed, downloadable report that can be used to understand and address the gaps found by the assessment and advocate for improvements in the community. The Ecosystem Assessment Tool is available in English, Spanish, and Arabic. We invite everyone to log-on, choose their language, and assess their community. With use of the Tool, and your feedback, we can better understand safety capacity around the world and advocate for a stronger commitment to strengthening all the systems that manage risk and keep tragic outcomes at bay.Visit to start your assessment today.  
Columns of government building

On the Road to Wildfire Resilience in Oregon; State Passes Comprehensive Wildfire Bill on July 1

Earlier this year, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) released a report on the deadliest disaster of 2018—the Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise, California. Eighty-one people died in that fire; 18,000 structures were lost. From mounds of data, researchers pieced together a timeline of the event: in roughly 6 hours, 85 percent of the town’s homes and businesses were gone, burned down by embers blown from the vast flame front or flames that traveled to homes from bushes, fences, mulch, and even neighbors. Eyewitness accounts from first responders describe woodpiles that caught adjacent siding, yard debris that carried flames to wooden decks, and dozens of other similar scenarios of home destruction. Last Labor Day, Talent, Phoenix, and several other Oregon towns experienced their own versions of Paradise. Nine people lost their lives, and 4,000, their homes. With the weather now hotter and drier than Oregonians might ever have imagined, a future of increased wildfire activity should be in clear view. Exact predictions vary, but none of the studies or models summarized by the Oregon Climate Change Institute’s Fifth Oregon Climate Assessment, offer a future without fire over a larger portion of the landscape and fires of increased size and severity. While this forecast is grim, there is a bright spot. On July 1, the Oregon legislature passed SB 762, a bill encompassing a wide range of policies to help the state confront its wildfire future with fewer losses. Under SB 762, Oregon will gain new, detailed maps to identify areas of wildfire risk and assist land use planners and others in developing strategies to reduce that risk. Utility companies will need to meet standards that reduce the risk their equipment will spark a fire, and builders will need to follow a new wildfire/urban interface (WUI) building code. Critically, it will also require individual property owners to reduce risk to their homes through defensible space requirements. As we saw from the NIST report on Paradise—and many other studies before that—homes with flammable material close to their exterior will catch on fire; those homes will ignite their neighbors. And once multiple buildings are on fire, amidst the demands of evacuations, fire department resources will be exhausted, leaving homes, businesses, and potentially people, to the fire. For this reason, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) strongly recommends that all structures in the WUI maintain at least a five-foot zone on all sides that is free of mulch, bushes, woodpiles, and anything else that can transfer flames from the wildfire to the building. Spacing of bushes and trees and removing yard waste can reduce risk even further. SB 762 was the result of months of bipartisan negotiations and stakeholder consensus building. As political cooperation nationwide stalls on so many fronts, Oregon is fortunate to have members like Senate Natural Resources Chair Jeff Golden and his colleagues who led the effort to ensure the recommendations from the Governor Brown’s 2019 Wildfire Response Council report did not simply sit on the shelf. This pragmatic cooperation will need to continue as the State Fire Marshal, the Department of Businesses and Consumer Services, the Department of Forestry, and other state agencies now move to implement the bill. The Pacific Northwest is facing a challenge. Just days after Oregon passed SB 762, 450 miles to the north of Salem, the village of Lytton was almost entirely destroyed by a wildfire. As enormous as this challenge is, it is not unprecedented. Before we had implemented codes and standards and invested in fire protection, fires that burned down entire neighborhoods, sometimes entire cities, were not uncommon. Since 1896, NFPA has championed the reduction of loss from fire. We are confronting today’s wildfire challenge with Outthink Wildfire™, which calls for retrofitting homes and business, following best land use planning practices, supporting the fire service, tending to our forests, and educating the public on their role in reducing risk. Oregon’s SB 762 is a great starting point for the state, but efforts must continue if Oregon wants to secure a future with less wildfire risk. Learn more about Outthink Wildfire at  

NASF President Calls on Federal Government to Treat Wildfires as an Emergency in America

As president of the National Association of State Foresters (NASF), Joe Fox, said in testimony on May 20 to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, “Wildfires in America are an emergency and should be treated like one.” At that hearing, broadly on the role of forestlands in addressing climate change, lawmakers and witnesses discussed challenges facing federal, state, and private land managers with 800 million acres to look after—many in poor ecological condition, overstocked with forest fuels, and in backlogged queues for restoration and reforestation attention. Challenges ranging from accessing forest product markets to workforce deficits, including labor and know-how for prescribed burning, make increasing the rate of hazardous fuel treatment for wildfire mitigation a steep climb. However, Fox and Colorado Senator Michael Bennet agreed that a significant, long-term investment could make a big difference. According to NASF, to take care of the tremendous fuel reduction and restoration needs of our forests, the country must treat five million acres per year on top of our current activity (roughly three million acres per year). In their estimation, this will cost $60 billion over 10 years, a big jump from current funding levels that average $591 million per year. But, to put that number in perspective, Senator Bennet quoted a figure from the U.S. Forest Service (USFS): it costs an average of $50,000 per acre to fight a forest fire versus $1,500 an acre to perform fuel treatment. Adding the costs spared to people and communities from catastrophic wildfires, preparedness is the cheaper option. To help realize this, the lawmaker has introduced the Outdoor Restoration Partnership Act, which would authorize that level of funding to tackle the millions of acres of land that pose a severe wildfire risk. While the FY2022 federal budget blueprint released by the Biden Administration in early April is not as ambitious as the Partnership Act, it does propose a major increase in fuel mitigation and forest restoration funding—$1.7 billion to the USFS and $340 million to the Department of Interior. In letters sent last week to Congressional Appropriators, NFPA voiced its support for this proposal. Outthink Wildfire™ calls for an increase in resources for fuel management and related actions to decrease wildfire risk in the nation’s forests. Outthink Wildfire also calls for more support for local fire personnel who are the first responders to the overwhelming majority of wildfires, which is why NFPA also stressed the need for at least $108 million for the USFS’ the State Forestry Assistance and Volunteer Fire Assistance programs which help train and equip state and local fire agencies. The letter also touched on support for community hazard mitigation, like the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program and the Administration’s proposal to add $540 million in new resources to help communities undertake pre-disaster planning and make investments in resiliency. It’s still early in the process for both the Partnership Act and the FY2022 budget and so, too early to know if Congress will act to treat wildfires in the US like the emergency they truly are. However, we all must understand that spending less on wildfire preparedness now is not a path to savings later. Learn more about Outthink Wildfire.

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