Topic: Wildfire

Preparing Homes for Wildfire: Property Upgrades Across Neighborhoods Can Prevent Fire Losses

The Outthink Wildfire™ policy initiative from NFPA® is a bold call to action and a challenge to end the destruction of communities by wildfire. It’s a comprehensive push to address one of the gnarliest challenges we face in the fire safety arena. The gnarl factor is heightened by the fact that there are already 45 million existing US homes at risk of burning to the ground due to wildfires. At a recent policy summit, more than two dozen experts discussed what it would take to upgrade these homes to be more ignition-resistant and to improve their chances of survival. Phrases like “retrofit” and “home hardening” were used, but in the face of ever-growing wildfire threats, some may wonder if a home improvement strategy could truly be effective in stopping the trend of multi-billion-dollar disasters involving thousands of homes in a single incident. While home improvements alone will not solve the problem, individual home retrofits across neighborhoods, and scaled up across regions, can absolutely make a difference. Sixty-plus years of research, experiments, and analysis give us the confidence to say that what people do to their homes and immediate surroundings can indeed improve fire-resistance and structure survival in the face of wildfire, as described in detail by the University of California Cooperative Extension Forestry. Many of these structural improvements are simple and inexpensive, on the order of regular home maintenance. Others involve a large but infrequent investment that will pay off over time, such as roof and window replacements. The key activities appear on the NFPA preparedness checklists, in NFPA standards, in some state and local regulations, and in the new Wildfire Prepared Home designation from the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS). These standards and guidelines all derive from what fire safety advocates have learned from the research community over decades. What do we know about how homes burn in wildfire events? We know that burning vegetation can ignite homes in three ways: radiating heat to the structure, flames touching the structure, and burning or smoldering embers piling up on or entering the structure through openings. These three mechanisms of fire spread can all happen at the same time. The most notorious culprits in home ignition from burning vegetation are embers, also known as firebrands. These pieces of burning material pile up on roofs, in gutters, and on flat surfaces like decks. They are driven by the wind into any openings in a home, including chimneys, vents, windows, pet doors, and in the cracks under doors. They can also burn mulch and shrubs up close to the home that then ignite the structure. Homes can also ignite if any flames touch the house, porch, deck, fence, and any other structural attachments. Imagine a dry lawn or a bed of pine needles providing a continuous path for flames to travel to the vulnerable parts of your structures. Finally, if there is enough dense vegetation within 30 feet (9 meters) of a structure, it can potentially radiate enough heat to ignite the walls. But for all the damage that burning vegetation can do to homes, it’s our own human-made fuel packages, in the form of vehicles, firewood piles, outbuildings, and our homes themselves that present some of the greatest dangers and can result in the destruction of whole neighborhoods. Once the wildfire burning through the vegetation ignites one of these fuel packages, it’s arguably no longer a wildfire. It’s a conflagration where these elements burn for a long time and ignite nearby homes through radiant heat or by generating flames that touch other houses or by casting off embers that go on to ignite neighboring properties. What can we do to prepare homes for wildfires? There are a number of steps homeowners can take to prepare. 1.     Operate under a worst-case scenario. Assume firefighters cannot respond with personnel, vehicles, and water to protect your home. Keep in mind that your home safety upgrades are for when a wildfire is approaching, and you and your family have evacuated. Retrofits should be aimed at preventing the wildfire or surrounding structures from igniting your home. 2.     Minimize ignition to your home’s exterior with roof repairs or replacements, dual- or triple-paned windows, and screened vents and openings. Repair any cracks in shingles or siding, and remove ignitable material from decks and patios during times of high wildfire danger. 3.     Address the area within 5 feet (1.5 meters) of your home’s perimeter and ensure there is nothing there that can burn—mulch, shrub, wood piles, wooden attachments, and so on. 4.     Keep large fuel packages like firewood piles or vehicles 30 feet (9 meters) or more from homes at times of high fire danger. 5.     Reduce the ignitability of your yard or acreage within 30 feet (9 meters) of your home and out to your property line by landscaping with fire in mind. 6.     Work with your neighbors to reduce ignitable elements on your shared boundaries and encourage them to work with their other neighbors. These tips and more can be found on the NFPA website. As advocates for improving policy to incentivize and support home and community fire safety, NFPA and like-minded organizations continue to seek ways to accelerate the pace of home and neighborhood upgrades so we can end wildfire disasters.

2022: A Year of Challenges and Progress in Fire Safety

With the holiday season upon us and we near the end of the year, I can’t help but think about the tragedies that ushered us into 2022. The tragic fires in Philadelphia and the Bronx in early January, coupled with the barrage of wildfires, made national headlines. Throughout the year, there were many other incidents that received less mass attention yet take their tolls. Each and every one underscore the safety challenges we face in our communities and our calls to action. Reflecting on the year, 2022 was also a year of events that were central to our efforts to answer those calls and pave the way forward. They reflect the core of what NFPA does so well – bring together a wide range of people and organizations to solve problems. Throughout the year, there was also no shortage of insightful innovation. This particularly holds true for those who attended the Outthink Wildfire™ summit in May. This two-day event in Sacramento, California brought together more than 50 representatives from across the US to focus on the complex problem of wildfire risk to existing properties and communities. Participants collaboratively worked to identify the most critically important areas needing national focus and the recommendations for addressing them. A recently released summit report summarizes next steps that dozens of experts agree will help overcome the challenges the nation faces in ending wildfire disasters. I’m pleased to say work is already underway on these tasks. We saw first-hand at NFPA’s Conference & Expo in June what happens when fire, life, and electrical safety professionals gather in person. Nearly 7,000 of them, including more than 280 exhibitors attended, all engaging in thought-provoking discussions, sharing viewpoints, solutions, and services with one another. After a bit of a hiatus from in-person meetings, it was inspiring to hear participants agreed, telling me they came away from this event with a renewed sense of purpose and energy and returned to their communities armed with the kind of information and knowledge they needed to help them succeed. The growing number of fires caused by lithium-ion batteries that power e-bikes and e-scooters prompted the FDNY Foundation, UL, and NFPA to co-sponsor a symposium in September to address these challenges. Visual demonstrations highlight the need for more public education associated with these devices and how people can protect themselves and their property. In response, NFPA launched an educational campaign, creating free resources for stakeholders to use and share with consumers. This project is a real-life example of how new technologies not only demand we be vigilant in how we respond to these emerging issues but how we collectively address risk to first responders, workers, and the public. In October, NFPA celebrated the 100th anniversary of Fire Prevention Week™. The century milestone of the longest running public health observance in the country takes on new urgency for prevention as today’s fire problem lays squarely in homes. According to NFPA research, you are more likely to die in a home fire now than you were in 1980 driven by modern construction and contents in houses. Together with thousands of fire departments, safety advocates, and business groups, NFPA promoted this year’s theme, “Fire Won’t Wait. Plan Your Escape.™,” reinforcing the critical importance of developing a home escape plan with all members of the household and practicing it regularly. Through hard work, enthusiasm, and creativity, the campaign came to life and actively engaged thousands of communities in home fire safety and prevention. As part of the 100th anniversary of FPW recognition, we also joined with the US Fire Administration and the entire fire service community for the first of its kind US Fire Administration Fire Prevention and Control Summit. Undoubtedly, this historic event will continue to be a catalyst for progress against the most pressing fire issues of the times. With the calendar turning to the new year, I’m counting on all of you to harness the energy and excitement that was evident at all these events. We must turn great insights into great action. We must continue to work together to connect the dots on safety. Together is how we can further our work to help save lives and reduce loss. Thank you for the significant role you play by joining with us to make the world safer from fire and other hazards. On behalf of NFPA, I wish you and your family a safe holiday season and a happy new year.

New Rules Benefit California Property Owners in Firewise USA Sites. What CA Property Owners Need to Know.

Through a new set of rules dubbed Safer from Wildfires, the California Department of Insurance (CDI) has required insurance companies doing business in the state to provide discounts for residential property insurance when policyholders reduce their wildfire risks. The Safer from Wildfires menu of creditable activities includes community-wide mitigation in the form of participation in the Firewise USA® recognition program. This is welcome news for property owners in active Firewise USA sites in California and can be viewed as a reward and additional acknowledgement of their efforts to protect their homes and neighborhoods from wildfire. However, the new rules have spurred a lot of confusion among consumers. Let’s try to clear some of it up by answering these FAQs. Does my insurance company offer a wildfire risk reduction discount?   California’s new rules come years after a few insurance companies had already voluntarily been offering discounts to their policyholders living in Firewise USA sites. For customers of USAA, Mercury, and a couple of other companies, this benefit was already available. The CDI maintains a list of all the insurers doing business in the state that offer wildfire risk reduction discounts, whether for being a Firewise USA site or for meeting other criteria outlined in their program menu. Before doing anything else, consumers should find out whether their company offers a discount by exploring this list. If your carrier is not yet on the list, be aware that CDI has given companies 180 days to make a filing that would provide a discount for one or more of the program categories. Am I eligible for a discount? Insurance companies have access to information about whether properties are part of a Firewise USA site through data providers that are working with NFPA®. If your company is on CDI’s list and specifically offers a Firewise USA discount, they should be determining your eligibility using these data. NFPA cannot make this determination for consumers, so it’s best to contact your insurance agent or a company representative with questions about eligibility. I am more worried about losing my insurance than getting a discount. Does wildfire risk reduction make my home more insurable? Whether to provide insurance or not, the cost of the policy, and any discounts are all decisions of the individual insurance company, which it bases on many different factors. In known high-risk areas, insurance companies are generally very interested in any wildfire loss reduction efforts that homeowners are making, especially if they fall into the categories listed in the Safer from Wildfire program. Consumer education professionals advise that property owners shop around for insurance, since insurance companies compete for business. CDI also provides consumer protections for property owners, including what to do if your insurer does not renew your coverage. How do I get involved with Firewise USA? If your neighborhood is not already engaged in Firewise USA, check out firewise.org and invest a little time in reading through the process of how to get organized, evaluate wildfire risks to property, develop an action plan, and conduct annual events. NFPA offers an interactive online tool to help neighbors organize their risk assessment and action plan. Its Firewise Portal walks you through the process of applying for community recognition. You can also work on protecting your own property from wildfire while working on the community-wide process through the tips and tools on the site.

Using Codes and Standards to Protect Homes and Businesses from Wildfire

Solving the problem of wildfire disasters—events where whole communities are impacted and thousands of buildings are destroyed—isn’t simple. Using codes and standards to address wildfire risks to the built environment is a critically important activity, but it is also quite intricate. To make the job of elected officials and AHJs easier, NFPA recently consolidated its wildfire-related documents into one convenient package, NFPA 1140, Standard for Wildland Fire Protection. A two-page, downloadable explainer, “Using Codes and Standards to Reduce Risk in Wildfire-Prone Areas,” has also been created to help local officials, AHJs, and policymakers navigate the complexity of this process. The asset draws connections between sections of NFPA 1140 and the relevant needs of community wildfire protection, from fire protection infrastructure to building materials to defensible space. Part of the Outthink approach Launched last year, NFPA’s Outthink Wildfire™ initiative promotes five key tenets based on decades of experience and research that we believe can make a significant difference in saving property and lives. Two of those five key tenets focus on using codes and standards to help make new construction safer and to address the hazards and exposures that existing homes and businesses face. NFPA 1140—which combines the previous standards NFPA 1051, NFPA 1141, 1143, and NFPA 1144—represents the consensus of wildfire experts on the most effective and efficient means for reducing risk to people and property. As communities consider how to mitigate wildfire dangers to existing and future development, as well as allocate resources for safe and effective emergency response, these standards should serve as the basis for their actions. The two-page explainer on using codes and standards to address wildfire risks notes when and where standards for wildfire mitigation should apply. It points out the relevant chapters of NFPA 1140 and other standards that can be used to protect existing structures. It addresses the need for water supplies and other firefighting infrastructure, including multiple access and egress routes enabling first responders to quickly enter threatened communities and allowing safe evacuation for residents. Finally, it suggests the roles and responsibilities for community officials who may be charged with enforcing elements of the standards. Wildfires are part of our natural environments, and they are inevitable; wildfire disasters are not. Learn more about the value and effectiveness of using codes and standards to bend down the wildfire risk curve for your jurisdiction by downloading our brief explainer here.

A level of Safety – NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem

Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend The 1st University of Maryland/NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem Symposium, in College Park, Maryland, U.S.A, where fire and life safety experts from across the globe gathered to discuss the principals of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem™ and its application to address today’s fire safety issues. For those of you who are not familiar with the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem™, it is “a framework that identifies the components that must work together to minimize risk and help prevent loss, injuries and death from fire, electrical and other hazards.” In other words, it identifies the items NFPA feels contribute to achieving the expected level of safety when it comes to fire and electrical hazards. Each component is depicted as a cog, each of which connect to form a circle. Over the two day symposium attendees reviewed case studies on the Ghost Ship Warehouse fire in Oakland, CA (2016); the Grenfell Tower Fire in London, UK (2017); and the Camp Fire, Butt County, CA (2018); and also discussed emerging issues involving residential fires; the safe use of alternative energy; and how to think about fire safety when using new building materials. Each topic was evaluated through the lens of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem™.  In many of the case studies multiple components of the ecosystem failed or lacked effectiveness. When discussing the emerging issues, no single component would solve the challenge presented. This seemed to lend to the idea that all the cogs must be working together to ensure the expected level of safety, so what happens if just one isn’t operating at peak performance? Does the ecosystem still provide a level of safety because the cogs remain connected? One example that came up several times was the need to mandate automatic fire sprinkler systems in all new and existing high-rise buildings. According to research done by NFPA, fire Sprinklers have been shown to be an extremely effective of increasing life safety with an 89% reduction in fire deaths in properties with automatic fire sprinklers as compared to those without. So, sprinklers would certainly make an impact on reducing deaths in fires. NFPA 1 Fire Code requires automatic fire sprinklers systems in all new high-rise building and all existing high-rise buildings within 12 years of the code becoming law. Mandating compliance with the most recent edition of this code through legislation falls under government responsibility cog. If the government responsibility cog was effective, this incorporation of NFPA 101 Life Safety Code would be one way they could create laws which prioritizes public safety needs.  However, as is sometimes the case a local government also could incorporate into law a modified NFPA 101 Life Safety Code, one which doesn’t mandate sprinklers in all high-rise buildings, specifically existing buildings. In the second case, one could argue that this cog would not be functioning at its optimal potential. How does this impact the level of safety in existing high-rise buildings? There are many examples of major fires in non-sprinklered or partially sprinklered high-rise buildings including the One Meridian Plaza fire (1991), the Cook County Administration Building fire in Chicago (2003), the Marco Polo Apartment Building Fire in Hawaii (2017) and the Twin Parks Northwest fire in New York City (2022). In all these cases a review of the fire concluded fire sprinklers could have made an impact, however all had multiple challenges; One Meridian Plaza had issues with water supply in the standpipe system; the Cook County Administration Building had locked doors preventing reentry on the floors above the fire; and both the Marco Polo and Twin Parks Northwest fires both had issues with self-closing doors. These challenges touch the Skilled Workforce, Code Compliance, and Investment in Safety cogs, resulting in the entire system failing. As I reflect on the discussion during the first NFPA Fire and Life Safety Ecosystem Summit, I can’t help but wonder if another part of the ecosystem concept is the resiliency of the anticipated level of safety in buildings. Each cog is interlaced with the next, adding elements of safety which can work together in an emergency to prevent a major tragedy. When one cog is not functioning at its optimal potential does the circular concept of the ecosystem allow the others to “turn” or function which will provide some level of safety, reducing the likelihood of a significant incident? As we wrap up fire prevention week, let’s think about all the cogs and how they’ll advance the level of safety for the public. Government Responsibility, Development and Use of Current Codes, Reference Standards, Investment in Safety, Skilled Workforce, Code Compliance, Preparedness and Emergency Response, and Informed Public all work together. Buildings which are designed, constructed, and operated with all these in mind really do have a level of safety which works to protect their occupants. Check out the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem™page for more on the concept, an assessment tool as well as the 2020 & 2021 Year in Review reports on the state of the ecosystem.

Lessons learned on wildfire communication and community initiatives

Isabeau Ottolini is a PhD candidate from the Open University of Catalonia (Spain) and the European project, PyroLife. She is researching Community-based Wildfire Communication, and has recently done her research stay at NFPA’s Wildfire Division. In this blogpost, she takes us along her visit across the USA, and shares lessons learnt on communicating about wildfires. Recently NFPA hosted me for a research stay to allow me to learn first-hand about community initiatives on wildfires, and specifically NFPA’s communication activities in the USA. I started my journey in California, with Bethany Hannah - founder of The Smokey Generation and the American Wildfire Experience. Together, we visited recent wildfire sites such as the 2021 Caldor Fire and the KNP Complex Fire; met the Division Chief of Prescribed Fire and Fuels at Yosemite National Park to learn how prescribed wildfire is used in one of USA’s most emblematic national parks; and observed the impact of the recent wildfires in the Sequoia National Park. At the IAWF Fire & Climate Conference in Pasadena, Bethany and I also presented together on Fire Stories: a case for Community-based Communication. Creating viewscapes across Yosemite with the help of prescribed burns. Photo: Isabeau Ottolini   In Colorado, Megan Fitzgerald-McGowan and Aron Anderson from NFPA’s Wildfire Division took me on field visits to Boulder and Colorado Springs. We visited the Sites of Excellence site, Red Rock Ranch, as well as diverse other Firewise and Wildfire Partners communities, to learn which wildfire prevention and mitigation activities are happening at the community level. We also visited diverse areas affected by wildfires in the past 30 years (from the Berry Fire in 1989, the Waldo Canyon Fire in 2012, to the most recent Marshall Fire), to learn how ecosystems and communities are impacted and recovering after wildfire disaster. Lastly, I had the great opportunity to present her research at the NFPA C&E in Boston. Here I shared Lessons from the US and Europe on Wildfire Communication with Communities at Risk. During my last days in the US, I partook in the day-to-day of the NFPA office, and together with Michele Steinberg visited a recent wildfire-affected area in the Blue Hills as well as the Six Ponds Firewise community in Plymouth. Lessons learned On my visit, I crossed the USA from west to east, observing very different fire landscapes and being inspired by many great community-based wildfire initiatives – including Firewise, the Sites of Excellence, Fire Adapted Communities, and Wildfire Partners – that make wildfire mitigation and prevention possible on the community level. Here are four lessons on how to communicate about wildfires and support community-based wildfire initiatives. There are no silver bullets nor quick fixes to prevent and mitigate wildfires. Wildfire communication needs to be adapted to local contexts, and this requires actively engaging with communities, listening to them, and reading the room. For instance, if a community has just lost homes to a wildfire, it is likely not the best time to talk about good fire. As wildfire communicators, we need to meet people where they are at. Take the time to first learn about their needs, knowledge, and interests, and then jointly develop wildfire actions that are most feasible, relevant and rewarding for each community. Sharing responsibility: the wildfire issue is too big to be addressed only by certain groups, like the fire service or public administrations. Experience shows that community-led initiatives can achieve so much in mitigating and preventing wildfire disasters, so it is crucial to involve and empower them to take action. In addition, recognizing and celebrating community achievements helps maintain motivation, such as by making visible their efforts (e.g. by putting up Firewise signs, sharing success stories in the media, etc.) as well as providing support (e.g. how to get grants for fuel reduction efforts). Lastly, it is essential to build trust and mutually beneficial relationships between communities, fire departments, public administrations, etc. Especially in informal settings, people can genuinely listen to each other, understand each other's challenges, find ways to help one other, and build great collaborations. Because at the end of the day it is all about building this human connection and working together on creating a more hopeful wildfire future.
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