AUTHOR: Meghan Housewright

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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 nfpa.org/wildfirepolicy.    
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 nfpa.org/ecosystemtool to start your assessment today.  
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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 nfpa.org/wildfirepolicy  

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.

Oregon Lawmakers Moving in the Right Direction on Wildfire

In 2020, wildfires in Oregon killed nine people and destroyed more than 5,000 homes and businesses. In response, legislators in 2021 are considering a number of measures to help those impacted, like bills to limit tax liability of victims and aid local governments with expenses incurred because of the fires. One bill though, aims to help the state prepare.  In early April, a bipartisan trio from the Oregon Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Wildfire Recovery voted to advance a comprehensive wildfire preparedness bill. If passed by the full legislature, SB 762 will lay the foundation for wildfire resilience in the state. SB 762 covers a lot of ground, from requiring wildfire mitigation plans from electrical utility providers, to helping small land holders tackle vegetation management, and establishing smoke mitigation programs for vulnerable populations.  Importantly, the bill also directs the Oregon Department of Forestry to develop and maintain a comprehensive statewide wildfire risk map.  With wildfire prone lands detailed on a map, state agencies will be able to act on SB 762’s requirements to pass wildfire safety building codes for those areas and develop recommendations to enable the state’s land use planning laws to address wildfire risk mitigation.  In 2020, as state officials were considering improving building codes for wildfire safety, the chairperson of their residential building code board asserted that “Oregonians” want “the freedom to choose where they want to live” and can take “the personal responsibility to construct their homes [according to] that choice.” In contrast, the authors of SB 762 rightly recognize that Oregonians, like everybody else, want safe homes built to the latest codes and standards. As emphasized by the bill’s sponsor, Natural Resource Committee Chair Jeff Golden, the bill was the culmination of thousands of hours of input from experts and individual stakeholders around the state, including those who worked developing the recommendations for the Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response 2019 report.  Moreover, as state agencies move forward with the defensible space requirements, the land use recommendations, the building code changes, and other parts of the bill through advisory committees and public hearings, citizens will have many opportunities to provide input that reflects the state’s diverse landscape. Having passed out of the Natural Resources Committee, it is now up for the whole Senate to consider SB 762, and for the Oregon Joint Committee on Ways and Means to debate whether to fund the measure’s current price tag of $150 million. Surely, when the appropriators consider that cost, they will weigh it against the half a billion dollars that wildfires can cost the state each year. $150 million is a down payment on Oregon’s future needs.  An estimated one third of all Oregonians, 1.2 million people, live in areas at risk from wildfires. The Governor’s Council on Wildfire Response estimated that the cost to reduce wildfire risk across the state’s heavily forested landscape will be at least $200 million per year alone.  Of course, funding for land management and wildfire response is a mix of state and federal tax dollars. However, if Oregon policymakers fail to act on this wildfire crisis that sees harrowing evacuations, homes destroyed, and businesses interrupted, it’s Oregonians who pay the true price.   SB 762 is in line with NFPA’s Outthink Wildfire™, a call to end the destruction of communities by wildfire in 30 Years. SB 762 advances the right policies needed to begin retrofitting at-risk properties, constructing to wildfire safety codes, evaluating local response capacity, prioritizing land management needs, and educating the public on their role in reducing risk.  Oregon lawmakers should act to make sure it gets over the finish line this session.

State Policymaking Key to Widespread Adoption of Wildfire Mitigation and Hazard Reduction Measures

With wildfires slated to remain persistent and destructive, state governments must chart a course to risk reduction. The overwhelming nature of some recent fires, like California’s one million acre August Complex, means that course cannot simply rely on bumping up fire suppression efforts. Instead, communities in harm’s way urgently need changes to the built environment, resources for first responders, attention paid to the landscape, and a public that better understands how to reduce risk to their own homes. Bills that have been introduced in state legislatures so far this year show some policymakers are grappling with these goals. Fittingly, legislators in California are perhaps the boldest. According to researchers, over the past 50 years—excluding the last four—wildfires have cost that state roughly $1 billion per year, adjusted for inflation. For each of the last four years, that cost has jumped to at least $10 billion per year. SB 55 aims to cut down on new risk by calling for a construction moratorium in all high-risk areas. However, while we must stop adding to the problem, the bill doesn’t address the bulk of the risk—homes that already exist. Two other proposals, though, do attempt to address that risk. SB 12 would make a number of big changes to the state’s land use planning regime—requirements to push local governments to mitigate wildfire risk for both new and existing developments. In addition, it would enable Cal Fire to turn to certified third parties to assist with inspections and property assessments. Historically, Cal Fire has only been able to inspect a fraction of the properties within their jurisdiction. Boosting their capacity to educate, inspect, and enforce, especially with California’s new standards to clear flammable materials from the space immediately by the home, would greatly help their efforts to reduce risk. SB 63 would also help Cal Fire in their duties to educate the public and assess properties by allowing qualified entities to perform property assessments and report the data to the agency. And, it would expand the use of California’s wildfire building codes to areas beyond just those with the most severe risk. This, and SB 12’s requirement for Cal Fire to update maps that determine building code requirements, are necessary to provide an updated picture of risk in the state and to reflect the fact that some places that have burned recently, like Santa Rosa’s Coffey Park, did not appear on high severity zone maps. In Oregon, the legislature is set to consider wildfire legislation, too. Regrettably, Governor Kate Brown’s 2020 proposal for a robust wildfire building code program for the state did not advance. However, like last year, the proposal the Governor is expected to put forward this year will also direct the development of statewide maps of wildfire risk. That $50 million proposal would also spend $25 million on expanding the state’s firefighting capacity, but only $8 to $10 million on community mitigation programs. Legislative sessions are fleeting. It’s already mid-February and Oregon’s session will wrap up in June; California’s in September. Arizona, which also experienced one of its most active wildfire seasons in 2020, has taken scant legislative action to address the growing problem and its session will be over by the end of April. With millions of homes at risk across thousands of communities, mitigation will take time. But, as we learn more about how homes burn in the wildland/urban interface and how to prevent it, the time to start applying those lessons is now. State policymaking is key to widespread adoption of mitigation and hazard reduction measures. State lawmakers cannot afford to continue to set this topic aside. Learn more about issues related to wildfire preparedness policy on page 66 of the spring edition of NFPA Journal.
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