Topic: Wildfire

Fire truck responding to a call

Research shows progress and problems since "America Burning"

"The striking aspect of the Nation’s fire problem is the indifference with which Americans confront the subject. Destructive fire takes a huge toll in lives, injuries, and property losses, yet there is no need to accept those losses with resignation. There are many measures--often very simple precautions-that can be taken to reduce those losses significantly.” Nearly 50 years ago, these salient words were reflected in the opening pages of America Burning, the historic report written in 1973 and revisited in 1980. Over the decades since the landmark account was published, I have heard countless people cite America Burning findings, point to the recommendations within, and talk about what the findings did for fire protection, fire prevention, and responder safety. I whole-heartedly agree that America Burning was a groundbreaking tool in our arsenal and yet, today, in arguably the most advanced nation in the world – nearly 3,000 people still succumb to house fires, not to mention in other occupancies. On the same page of that report, the authors wrote, “These statistics are impressive in their size, though perhaps not scary enough to jar the average American from his confidence that “It will never happen to me.” And therein lies the problem. Complacency. It’s a killer of people, of property, of perspective, and of progress. But as has often been said, knowledge is power. NFPA has spent the last 125 years, believing this tenet to be true and furthering understanding in the interest of safety. Our vision of eliminating death, injury, property, and economic loss due to fire, electrical, and related hazards is not merely a cliché, it is at the core of everything we do, everything that the America Burning report touched on back in the 70s and 80s, and served as the impetus for a new seminal report from NFPA and the Fire Protection Research Foundation, our research affiliate. The Fire in the United States Since 1980, Through the Lens of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem Report shows the progress we have achieved in reducing loss in certain structures; the strides we’ve made with fire protection technologies such as smoke alarms and sprinklers; the success that we have achieved through public education; and the positive effect that mandated codes and standards have played in altering the fire experience in our country. Today, we rarely see people perish in healthcare settings or hotels. Children are less likely to die from playing with fire. Fires in apartment buildings and hi-rise buildings have decreased. Our schools and the children, educators, and staff that occupy them are significantly safer. These are all positives that, in many ways, point to the components of the Ecosystem that we have been talking about for three years now. Yes, at NFPA, we look at safety through the lens of the Ecosystem – not because we developed this framework a few years back but - because after more than a century of championing safety, two America Burning studies and this new research from NFPA – it is abundantly clear that fire safety requires a holistic, purposeful approach, and unwavering accountability. That holistic, purposeful approach and unwavering accountability is what it’s going to take for us to move the needle on the most pressing fire safety issues of today. The new research reminds us: We need all the elements of the Ecosystem working together on Community Risk Reduction (CRR) strategies so that we can decrease the number of elderly dying in home fires. With roughly one of every three fatal home fire victims being 65 or older, more research and resources are needed to protect our most vulnerable citizens. That’s why our Data, Analytics and Research team and the Research Foundation work to inform our Remembering When program which educates communities on older adult fire and fall prevention. States with higher fire death rates have larger percentages of people who have a disability; have incomes below the poverty line; live in rural areas; or are populated by African Americans, Blacks, Native Americans, or Alaskan Natives. There is more work to do to reach those at greatest risk. We must stem the trend of wildfire-caused human and property losses. Wildfire is becoming the dominant type of fire that causes catastrophic multiple deaths and property destruction in our country. In fact, 7 of the 10 costliest fires in the US were fires in the wildland/urban interface. We launched our new Outthink Wildfire™ policy campaign to advocate change around where and how we build and to bring together policy-makers, the fire service, and the public to work with all elements of the Ecosystem, so that we can redraft history and change the narrative. “Each one of us must become aware – not for a single time, but for all the year – of what he or she can do to prevent fires,” President Richard Nixon said in 1972. (The quote can be heard in the latest NFPA Learn Something New video about the new research.)   I urge you to use the knowledge in this new report to power your fire prevention and protection steps so, together, we can rewrite history.
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  
A wildfire burning at night

Maintaining vigilance through the 2021 fire year

The 2021 fire year is halfway through, and it has been a busy one so far. As of today, the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) reports over 32,000 fires had been reported, burning over 1.6 million acres.  Communities have been threatened and homes have been lost. Looking forward, the National Interagency Fire Center’s (NIFC’s) Predictive Services newest National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook for July, August, September, and October 2021 shows much of the west above normal wildfire potential. This is setting up for a volatile situation. While the main objective of NIFC’s outlook is to improve information to fire management decision makers for proactive wildland fire management, thus better protecting lives and property, reducing firefighting costs and improving firefighting efficiency; it can also be of use to wildfire preparedness practitioners and residents. The outlook reminds us to be proactive, dedicating time throughout the year to improve your home's chances of withstanding a wildfire. Here are a few actions you can take: Clean out leaves, needles, and other debris from your roof and gutters Move any flammable material away from wall exteriors – mulch, flammable plants, leaves and needles, firewood piles – anything that can burn. Remove anything stored underneath decks or porches. Screen or box-in areas below patios and decks with wire mesh to prevent debris and combustible materials from accumulating Create space between plants, trees and shrubs in the 5-30 foot zone from the house, limit to small clusters of a few of each to break up the continuity of the vegetation across the landscape. For more ideas on what steps to take around your home and property visit our Preparing Homes for Wildfires Page.  You can also order a package of our Reducing Wildfire Risks in the Home Ignition Zones Poster checklists to share with your friends and neighbors.
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.
Saddleroad on Pixabay

Answering the wicked questions around wildfire

How can diverse disciplines make sense of the complex problem of wildfire? What are some ways that professionals in disaster resilience, land use planning, building design, construction, and insurance become involved in a national policy push to end the destruction of communities by wildfire? These were the questions that two national organizations set out to answer in separate podcasted interviews with me about Outthink Wildfire™, NFPA’s wildfire policy initiative launched earlier this year. The first brought me back to the planning world. I’ve been a member of the American Planning Association (APA) since the 1990s and helped found their membership division on Hazard Mitigation and Disaster Recovery. It was a pleasure to speak with my good friend Jim Schwab, a Fellow of the American Institute of Certified Planners (FAICP) and founder of APA’s National Center on Hazards Planning, on the latest installment of APA’s Resilience Roundtable podcast series. We talked about how I got involved in planning, hazards and wildfire. We especially focused on how NFPA has evolved its wildfire work from a narrow approach on public outreach to a broader, potentially more impactful set of policy planks that can positively change future outcomes when wildfires occur. You can listen to the 37-minute interview via Soundcloud directly on their website, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or anywhere else you listen to podcasts. The second returned me to the all-hazards world. Leslie Chapman-Henderson is another long-time friend and colleague in the natural hazards resilience business and the CEO and founder of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes - FLASH, Inc. On her podcast, Strong Homes, Safe Families! she interviews people with many different roles in the disaster resilience and risk reduction arena. Our discussion covered many aspects of wildfire safety, starting with the basics about wildfire risk, how homes ignite, and moving on to risk reduction methods and the potential for real change that a policy initiative like Outthink Wildfire can instigate. You can listen to our 38-minute conversation on the Anchor FM website, or on your favorite podcatcher. Enjoy these podcasts and when you’re finished, check out the February 23, 2021 edition of The NFPA Podcast for an additional discussion on “The Plan to Outthink Wildfire™.” Photo: From saddleroad on Pixabay, June 24, 2021

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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