AUTHOR: Michele Steinberg

house on fire

Hard truths about a hard time: Marshall Fire devastation illustrates conditions leading to wildfire disaster

The fires just before the New Year in Boulder County have been devastating in terms of property loss and human suffering. I join with all my colleagues in sympathy for those who have been left homeless and those who have been traumatized by the experience of fleeing their homes with minutes to spare. In our world of wildfire and disaster resilience, we sadly know there are many others who are retraumatized by watching this event unfold, as they have so recently experienced similar losses. In addition to supporting our friends and neighbors as they recover, it is of the utmost importance that we use this time to understand what happened and to communicate how we might change future outcomes. The Marshall Fire illustrates an important truth about wildfire disasters. For decades, attempts at disaster reduction and mitigation have relied on a definition of “wildland/urban interface” to try to describe the location, or the line, where we might take protective steps when building in areas prone to nature’s fire. And for at least 20 years, NFPA has argued for an alternate description of the so-called interface, as a set of conditions that can exist nearly everywhere. In other words, wildfire disasters (what happens when homes and other structures ignite during wildfires) can happen almost anywhere given just the right conditions of vegetative and structural fuel, weather and topography. The destruction caused by the Marshall Fire, with nearly 1,000 homes and other structures obliterated, was the result of a veritable perfect storm of fire conditions. Unseasonable warm and dry conditions have persisted in the Front Range area of Colorado for months, with virtually no snow in fall or early winter. As described in a recent New York Magazine Intelligencer interview with climate scientist Daniel Swain, the region is subject to strong winds, especially in winter, that materialized on a sunny day at the end of December. With an ignition on a warm and windy day, in bone-dry vegetation, the wildfire took off through grass and brush and began to ignite the other plentiful fuel source in the form of homes and commercial buildings. With wind gusts that would qualify for a strong Category 2 hurricane along the coastline, there was no stopping the spread of flames and especially embers that penetrated vulnerable buildings through vents, cracks, garage doors and other openings. Outside, once any combustible material – grass, shrubs, mulch, a rattan doormat, a parked vehicle – ignited, it was bound to burn and to then ignite the next combustible fuel – porches, decks, combustible siding on exterior walls, outbuildings. In the dense development throughout Superior, Louisville and surrounding areas, buildings aflame easily ignited the next home, the next business, and so on. The result was urban conflagration that Swain described in the interview as not unlike the Great Fires of history (London, Chicago, and the list goes on). The reality that home destruction from wildfire can happen nearly anywhere complicates attempts to regulate new construction and to reach vulnerable residents with vital safety information. As the past week has shown, however, safety advocates and policymakers must embrace the complexity of this problem, tell the hard truths, and recommit to ending wildfire disasters. NFPA launched Outthink Wildfire last year for this very reason. We owe it to our friends and neighbors to work to make this kind of destruction rare instead of recurrent.

Recognizing a need for clarification: Firewise recognition vs. certification

As wildfires ignite landscapes and communities during this active fire year, interest in community action to improve wildfire safety is at an all-time high. Folks are seeking out the Firewise USA® recognition program in greater numbers than ever before, with hundreds of new sites in the process of having their applications approved. This is great news, but when articles come out that a new site has met the criteria, the headlines often say that the community has become “Firewise-certified” or “earned their certification from Firewise.” What's in a name? And why doesn't “recognition” smell as sweet to copy editors as “certification?” Often, the brief articles I see celebrating a community's hard work to become safer from wildfire will use NFPA's information about Firewise verbatim, and will talk about the community being recognized for its efforts, even when the headline says “certified.” All this would be simply a fussy English major's headache, if it weren't for the real concern our program team has about what “certification” and “certified” imply. A quick web search showed a pretty consistent pattern that certification applies most often to people, not to groups, and implies a high professional standard of achievement that allows an individual to access a certain job role or professional qualification. Certified accountants come to mind. One of the few certifications I found applying to an organization had to do with the ability of organizations to access specific government funding. And of course, NFPA develops and provides certifications of various kinds to help fire inspectors, electricians, and others demonstrate technical competency in their fields. NFPA's national recognition of neighborhoods where residents organize and follow guidelines to become safer from wildfire doesn't apply to individuals (and certainly not individual homes). Yes, there are criteria that have to be met, but they are fairly flexible and are intended to encourage people living in high-risk areas to get started on a years-long, community-wide journey toward greater safety. Unlike a certification, Firewise USA recognition is not an end-point, nor the end-all-and-be-all of wildfire safety. The more we see “certified” and “certification” being tossed around in articles and online conversation, the more the perception of Firewise USA seems to become warped and conflated with individual homes meeting some mythical standard of safety or insurability. This perception is understandable, especially in California, where more and more people living in high-risk areas have experienced insurance rate increases or have had to shop for insurance when their carrier declines to continue covering their property. However, we simply can't claim that any given property is safer or its risk has been reduced just because the minimum community-wide criteria have been met on a voluntary basis. While we've seen positive effects on overall community safety over time, Firewise recognition is not a magic wand we wave to make a home with a flammable roof and overgrown vegetation safe from wildfire. Recognition is our encouragement and acknowledgment that communities have taken the first steps toward safety, and toward a sustained effort to change the results when wildfire strikes. Photo: Community members presented with Firewise USA Recognition sign, NFPA.
Wildfires happening in the US

What’s needed for wildfire safety? A briefing for Congressional staff

As wildfires continue to erupt in Western states this season, safety advocates teamed up to provide a briefing to members of Congress and their staff, hosted by the Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI). As NFPA’s Wildfire Division Director, I joined colleagues from the fire service and building code community to discuss trends in wildfire frequency and magnitude, and to discuss what federal policymakers and agency leaders can do to support loss reduction, community resilience, and safety for first responders. Participants heard from Chief Rich Elliott, the chair of the Wildland Fire Policy Committee for the International Association of Fire Chiefs and a deputy fire chief with Kittitas Valley Fire and Rescue in Washington state, and from Karl Fippinger, VP of Government Relations on fire and disaster mitigation for the International Code Council. After I reviewed the current state and future potential of large, damaging wildfires across the country, my co-presenters highlighted the needs for fire service training and protective equipment, described the role of federal agencies and policymakers in influencing wildfire risk reduction and safety, and emphasized the need for support of the use and enforcement of sound building codes and land use plans. The briefing was a key opportunity to discuss the tenets of Outthink Wildfire™, NFPA’s wildfire policy actions we believe that all levels of government should embrace to influence a future where wildfire disasters become a thing of the past. You can view the webinar recording at CFSI’s website and learn more about their mission to educate members of Congress about fire and life safety issues.
Wildfire in the background of a community

What to do if your home insurance is not renewed: up-to-date information for California policyholders

For many homeowners, choosing and purchasing property insurance is often a “set it and forget it” scenario. Federally-backed mortgage loans require homebuyers to purchase insurance, but how many homebuyers shop around for the best deal, discuss coverage details with an insurance agent, or think about looking for a new carrier after 5, 10, or 20 years? Dramatic, frequent, and increasing property losses due to wildfire in California are forcing policyholders to think differently about their insurance, since a growing number of companies are discontinuing or “non-renewing” residential property insurance policies in areas deemed at high risk. More and more California property owners are being forced to seek out insurance that adequately covers their risks at an affordable price. A new resource from Stronger California, an insurance trade coalition, can help consumers do just that. A new fact sheet on non-renewals helps homeowners understand their consumer protections under California law and gives helpful links for finding a new insurance carrier through a website or by talking to an agent or broker. It also directs consumers to options such as the California FAIR Plan and surplus lines insurers. Since a homeowner needs insurance to keep their mortgage, and most people cannot afford to rebuild and recover from a wildfire out of their own savings, it’s critical that consumers take action to educate themselves and seek out the best coverage they can afford. NFPA recognizes that property insurance is the primary and largest financial safety net for recovering from disaster-caused property damage including wildfires. It’s vital that insurance remains available to support the recovery and rebuilding of homes, businesses, and communities. While the insurance market in California is challenging, insurance experts are working to educate consumers about their choices as well as the things they can do to reduce their likelihood of wildfire loss and the possibility of losing their insurance coverage. The Stronger California coalition is calling on regulators, communities and insurers to work together on a comprehensive solution to the wildfire crisis, that ensures homeowners in high-risk areas have access to comprehensive coverage at competitive prices. Californians can learn more about what they can do to stay physically and financially prepared on their website.
A wildfire in the hills

Just the facts: fireworks pose special dangers this holiday season

Americans celebrate July 4 with many traditions, including fireworks, to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence by representatives of 13 British colonies to break away from England and form a new nation. We love and cherish our holiday traditions, but unfortunately, conditions in many states make our use of fireworks especially dangerous and deadly this year. Deaths and injuries from consumer fireworks occur every year, and so do brush, grass and forest fires. The challenge is clear. Hot, dry weather and ongoing drought in many states add up to an ominous outlook for wildfire ignitions this summer. As one of my favorite Founding Fathers once said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence." John Adams, first U.S. vice-president and second U.S. president, wasn’t referring to the statistics related to fireworks, but his words certainly apply when confronting our national wish to celebrate as usual in the face of overwhelming evidence of the risks to people, lands, and property. Did you know that the 4th and 5th of July are the peak days for wildfire incidents? Local fire departments respond to more than 7,000 wildfires on those days, on average. NFPA’s latest Brush, Grass, and Forest Fires report show annual averages for July 4 incidents at five times the daily average.  In addition, a recent fire science study on the impacts of human-ignited wildfires on U.S. homes notes the singularity of early July in terms of human-caused wildfire. The report concludes that, “People are starting almost all of the wildfires that threaten our homes.” In addition to wildfires that threaten lives, property, and challenge the ability of firefighters in drought-stricken regions to readily suppress them, fireworks do damage every year to people – one-third of whom are children. In 2018, U.S. hospital emergency rooms treated an estimated 9,100 people for fireworks-related injuries. More than a third of those injuries were to the eye or other parts of the head. Sadly, in 2020, fireworks injuries sent an estimated 15,600 people to the hospital, with more injuries seen last year than in the previous 15 years. Many fire scientists and land managers are so dismayed by these facts and the severe current wildfire conditions that they are circulating a sign-on statement pleading with the public to forego fireworks this July 4th. NFPA’s position has long been that the use of consumer fireworks is inherently unsafe. Recent changes to laws which have loosened the restriction on sales of more powerful pyrotechnics to the public intensifies our view. Get the facts, as well as fun alternatives to fireworks to celebrate our nation’s birthday this coming week on NFPA’s Fireworks page. Help your family enjoy the celebration while staying out of the emergency room and keeping your neighbors safer from accidental wildfire ignitions.
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