AUTHOR: Michele Steinberg

A facilitator listening to a group

Outthink Wildfire summit works to build a bridge between barriers to wildfire mitigation and strategies to overcome them

As the past several years have shown, the mounting wildfire crisis in the U.S. presents a significant danger to people, homes, and communities, particularly those in wildfire urban interface (WUI) settings. While we know what’s needed to measurable reduce these risks, putting them into action requires buy-in and support from individual property-owners, communities, and policymakers at each level of government. Therein lies the challenge. Motivating these audiences to do their part isn’t always easy. But to truly increase safety from wildfire, we need to identify viable pathways to better combat the growing wildfire problem and put those measures into action. As a next step toward that end, NFPA hosting its first Outthink Wildfire™ summit last week in Sacramento, CA. NFPA launched Outthink Wildfire last year as a major policy initiative to stem the tide of wildfire-caused human and property losses through significant changes at all levels of government. Outthink Wildfire is about how we build, where we build, and bringing policymakers, fire service and the public together to solve the problem. The summit focused on developing a set of recommendations for the built environment, primarily tackling ways to get existing homes better protected from wildfire. Representatives from nearly 40 organizations were invited to share their input, insights, and recommendations, and to help create a template for effectively reducing wildfire risks in WUI communities. While space for this event was limited, it serves as a launchpad for many more individuals and organizations to participate going forward so that we can collectively move the needle on wildfire mitigation. Outthink Wildfire participants (in alphabetical order) American Property Casualty Insurance Association Brian Meacham Associates Build Strong America CAL FIRE California Association of REALTORS® California Building Industry Association California Building Standards Commission California Fire Safe Council California Fire Science Consortium/Cal Poly San Luis Obispo California Governor's Office City of Austin (TX) Fire Department Colorado Div. of Fire Prevention & Control Colorado Wildfire Partners Desert Research Institute Fire Marshals Association of Colorado U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) Insurance Information Institute International Code Council Munich Reinsurance America, Inc. National Association of State Fire Marshals National Disability Rights Network National Institute of Standards & Technology (NIST) National Volunteer Fire Council National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) NorCal Fire Prevention Officers Oregon Building Codes Division, Dept Consumer & Business Svcs Oregon Fire Marshals Association Oregon State Fire Marshals Office Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) Foundation Sonoma County (CA) Fire Prevention & Hazardous Materials Div. Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment U.S. Fire Administration UL Fire Safety Research Institute USDA Forest Service Western Fire Chiefs Association Wildland Fire Leadership Council A full report on the summit and next steps will be released in the coming months. In the meantime, a tremendous thank you to the 50-plus representatives who attended the summit this week. The enthusiasm and commitment displayed reinforces my hope and belief that we will truly be able to meet the ultimate Outthink Wildfire goal of eliminating wildfire hazards in 30 years. I also look forward to hearing from all the wildfire safety advocates and officials who were not at the summit but would like to get actively involved in the Outthink Wildfire initiative. It takes buy-in and engagement from all of us to make holistic, impactful wildfire mitigation a reality.
Representatives of a Firewise community

Stepping up to the challenge - Firewise USA participation increases along with more rigorous criteria

It’s never been more important for communities to engage in wildfire risk reduction around homes and neighborhoods. During 2021, participation in the only nationally available, standardized, and documented community wildfire risk reduction program, Firewise USA® increased to 1,839 sites in 43 states. Thirteen percent of the current total are new to the program; more than half of participating sites have been working on wildfire risk reduction for five or more years. Wildfire risk reduction is an ongoing process and must be addressed continuously due to the dynamic nature of wildfire risk. NFPA staff are especially proud of all communities that stepped up to the challenge of new criteria meant to ensure the continued high quality of the Firewise USA program. Behind every smiling face holding a Firewise sign, there is a tremendous amount of work and coordination that happens each year. Let’s take a look at the numbers! There are nearly 1.5 million people living in Firewise USA® sites around the country, working on wildfire risk reduction for 645,874 dwelling units. During 2021, these sites: Invested $133.9 million in wildfire risk reduction work Logged 2 million volunteer hours Removed 2.49 million cubic yards of flammable vegetation The volunteer hour for 2021 was valued at $27.20, and participating sites must accomplish the equivalent of one hour of work for every dwelling unit (home) in the community. They can achieve this through documenting work hours, cash spent, or in-kind services received. Most encouraging in the numbers was the significant effort to make changes to homes and home landscapes within 100 feet of the structure – modifying the Home Ignition Zone to reduce vulnerability to flames and embers. A solid 70% of the documented work was in the Home Ignition Zone last year, up from about 65% in 2020. The $133.9 million in risk reduction investment was split roughly 60/40 between volunteer hours vs. cash or in-kind. Nearly half of the annual cash investment in risk reduction were costs for professionals to do the work needed. Nearly a quarter of these investments involved home improvements to reduce ignition potential. While growth has been significant in the West, a number of states that usually aren’t associated with wildfire risk show strong commitment to wildfire risk reduction when we look at the top 10 states for Firewise participation. In 2022, NFPA will be creating more tools to help interested communities work through the Firewise process more readily. Stay tuned for what’s new as the year goes on!
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.
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