Author(s): Molly Mowery. Published on September 1, 2011.


An unidentified man tires to contain one of the seven fires which broke out simultaneously in Cape Town, South Africa, Thursday, Jan, 26, 2006. (Photo: AP) 

World of Opportunity
NFPA expands its reach to address the global wildfire problem

NFPA Journal®, October 2011 

By Molly Mowery 

In recent years, tragic wildfire events around the world have been pushed into the international spotlight. Consider a few headlines from within the past year: "Wildfires turn Russia red: 700 die a day in Moscow as deadly smog doubles mortality rate"; "Bolivia declares emergency over forest fires"; "Israel wildfire death toll tops 40"; "Grassland fire kills 22 in Tibet"; and "Forest fires: Britain bursts into flames."  Significant recent wildfire events in countries from Australia to Canada to Greece have further driven home the message that this is an international problem that isn’t going away. The reasons behind these fires are hotly debated. Mounting evidence of a changing climate, which brings increased drought to different regions, could certainly be playing a role.

Human causes are factors, too. Of the more than 700 wildfires that burned in Russia during the summer of 2010, the majority of those were reportedly started by unintentional human causes: people burning garbage, dropping cigarettes, or failing to properly extinguish campfires or barbecues. Other reasons, such as deliberate burning for agricultural purposes or designating land ownership, can result in similarly devastating wildfires.

Indonesia is an extreme example. In 1997, the combination of slash-and-burn farming practices and arson-caused fires that were set to claim ownership of land resulted in fires that burned out of control for months, scorching more than 20 million acres (8.1 million hectares). The smoke impact of those fires extended to Brunei, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines. In the U.S., human activity is also strongly linked to wildfire. Of the nearly 72,000 wildland fires recorded last year by the National Interagency Fire Center, nearly 65,000 were listed as human-caused.

Compounding the issues of wildfire risk is the fact that more people worldwide are willingly moving into areas prone to wildfire. In the U.S. and Canada, lifestyle preferences and development patterns have resulted in many new homes being built in suburban and rural environments that are fire-prone, areas known as the wildland-urban interface, or WUI. This type of development pattern is shared by many other countries, most notably Australia, where large areas of cities such as Melbourne and Sydney have expanded into the bush. Other types of WUI growth, such as that in South Africa, are a result of informal settlements, as poor populations are pushed to the urban fringe and into the same high wildfire risk areas. Wildland-urban interface environments boast more nature and less city, which also means more trees, grasses, brush, and other fuels that are likely to burn when a wildland fire occurs. It also means more homes and people, including firefighters, are put at risk during a wildfire event.

Changing weather conditions, settlement patterns, and human behavior will continue to present challenges in coping with wildfires. NFPA recognizes these challenges and has made a strategic effort to bolster its contribution to wildfire safety on the domestic and international stages. As evidence of the organization’s support, NFPA created a Wildland Fire Operations Division in 2010. My role as a program manager within the division includes coordination of our international outreach. Although this means I am on the road for much of my work, I am learning firsthand the spectrum of WUI threats faced by communities. I also have the benefit of seeing what different countries are doing to address their risk by implementing sound wildland fire safety principles, and sharing lessons learned with fire professionals as they embark on the path to creating safer communities.

Fruitful foundations
Since its creation, the Wildland Fire Operations Division has been actively raising NFPA’s profile as an authority on wildland fire mitigation. The division has already initiated studies to look at the effectiveness of regulation in the WUI, and has begun working with other partners, including the U.S. Forest Service, International Association of Fire Chiefs, and the Ad Council, to advance the concept of Fire Adapted Communities, a program that provides information and resources to communities across the U.S. to educate them on wildfire risk and how to work collaboratively to ensure safer living in the WUI. These efforts are in addition to the ongoing implementation of the hugely successful national Firewise® program, which encourages local solutions for wildfire safety by involving homeowners, community leaders, firefighters, developers, and others in an effort to protect people and property from the risk of wildfire. The Firewise program teaches residents how to prepare their homes, landscapes, and neighborhoods to reduce the likelihood of ignition during a wildfire, steps that include clearing brush and debris, cleaning gutters, mowing lawns, and retrofitting windows or replacing vulnerable roofs. More than 700 communities throughout the U.S. have been recognized by the Firewise Communities/USA® recognition program.

As the Wildland Fire Operations Division looks forward with new international initiatives, momentum is being drawn from fruitful relationships built over the past decade. During that period, our NFPA staff have traveled to the U.K., Canada, and Australia to learn about local efforts to address wildfire hazards and share best practices from the Firewise Communities Program. We have also attended wildland fire conferences aimed at international audiences, and welcomed the participation of delegates from Greece, South Africa, and Australia to NFPA’s Backyards & Beyond conferences.

These efforts have enabled partnerships to blossom. A prime example is the work I’ve been doing with the Canadian non-profit association Partners in Protection (PiP), a network of wildland/urban interface fire professionals from across Canada’s provinces. PiP’s work includes developing and administering FireSmart®, a program that gives communities and homeowners across Canada information and tools to confront wildfire protection issues. Since 2006, PiP has been communicating with NFPA to learn more about our Firewise program and lessons learned that can be applied to FireSmart. In the last year, Sean Tracey, NFPA’s Canadian regional director, and I decided to take the next step: together, we worked with PiP to formalize a relationship between the two associations. A Memorandum of Understanding was signed in February by PiP and NFPA, with the intention of supporting the compatible missions of each organization to benefit communities throughout North America. Since then, I have been serving on PiP’s Board of Directors, fostering ongoing communications between our division and their organization. In 2012, Tracey and I will begin assisting PiP with the development of a FireSmart Communities recognition program for Canada, similar to the Firewise Communities/USA recognition program.

Tracey is equally enthusiastic about the new relationship. "NFPA’s support of PiP is an important collaboration that will allow both organizations to openly share research, best practices, and lessons learned related to wildfire science and mitigation, and the public will benefit from it," he says. He also notes that NFPA seeks PiP’s support to include FireSmart design principles in the forthcoming 2015 edition of the National Building Code of Canada. Standards such as NFPA 1144, Reducing Structural Ignition Hazards from Wildland Fire, could be incorporated and required for application in high-risk areas.

From PiP’s perspective, this is a much needed opportunity to elevate professional interest and awareness into wildfire challenges around Canada. "Being affiliated with a world-renowned leader in fire prevention and public safety brings greater recognition and credibility to the Partners in Protection Association," says Kelly O’Shea, the executive director for Partners in Protection. "We look forward to working with NFPA to meet the challenges of wildland-urban interface fires."

Future prospects
In May, I accompanied Michele Steinberg, manager of the Firewise program, on a trip to Sun City, South Africa, for the 5th International Wildland Fire Conference, or "Wildfire 2011." More than 700 delegates from 73 countries met to participate in the conference and discuss the global impact of wildfire. The trip became a pivotal opportunity for us to share the latest NFPA wildland fire program updates and to learn more about the successes and challenges of wildland fire mitigation throughout the world. Most remarkable were the triumphs that South Africa has seen with the implementation of its Firewise efforts, known as Firewise SA.

Initiated through the Working on Fire Programme and funded by the South Africa Government, Firewise SA is an outreach program that creates awareness of wildfire dangers and educates communities about fire prevention. South Africa estimates that more than 90 percent of its forest and savannah fires are human-caused, and the need for outreach is clear. Firewise SA materials and training have been tailored to consider populations with limited access to electricity and fire suppression equipment, as well as the challenge of multiple languages and low literacy rates.

Val Charlton, national advocacy manager of Firewise SA, credits much of the program’s success to its ability to access NFPA’s Firewise program. "We literally saved millions of dollars by adopting the Firewise USA program and its materials for our own use," Charlton says. "This allowed us to get started on our program quickly and to begin building from a model that we knew already worked successfully."

There is vast potential for these kinds of relationships to continue and to expand all around the world. NFPA is already brainstorming with Firewise SA and PiP to envision a global network of wildfire mitigation professionals, one where we could share information on an international scale and benefit from a global level of support. Nothing like this currently exists, and there is a real opportunity and need for this kind of network.

In the meantime, the Wildland Fire Operations Division is developing a Firewise international package to introduce new global audiences to the Firewise concepts of home protection. This year’s Backyards & Beyond wildfire safety and education conference in Denver will also feature more international sessions.

As NFPA’s role continues to expand in the wildland fire arena, we have plenty of work ahead of us. But through strengthening relationships, sharing information and best practices, and supporting international efforts to address wildfire safety, we also see a world of opportunity.

Molly Mowery is a program manager for NFPA’s Wildland Fire Operations Division.