Author(s): Lucian Deaton. Published on March 1, 2016.

Hot & Hotter

Climate change and structural fire risks collide in the wildland/urban interface


As the world welcomed the new year, the news was full of stories about the agreement on global climate change made at the United Nations climate conference in Paris, as well as predictions for a severe El Niño weather pattern that could impact global weather conditions in 2016. The impact of weather was on the minds of those at the Paris conference—the negotiated agreement saw 195 participating nations seek reductions to their carbon emissions over the next decade to reduce man-made climate impacts.

Climate agreements and weather patterns do, in fact, have something to do with structural fires and NFPA’s focus on wildland fire—if the residents and structures you protect are in the wildland/urban interface (WUI), they can mean a lot. Rising temperatures around the world can make naturally occurring events even more severe. El Niño is a shift in Eastern Pacific air currents around the equator that further raises water temperatures, impacting weather across the globe—a phenomenon that can be amplified by higher global temperatures. This year, El Niño is predicted to bring wetter conditions to the West Coast—much-needed relief after years of drought—but also extreme weather events and warmer conditions in the Northern Hemisphere and the Arctic.

We must all acknowledge that our built environment and social processes are designed for a type of climate that is now past. Climate change and structural fire risks collide in the WUI, where homes and entire communities are located in natural landscapes increasingly at risk from warmer, drier, and windier conditions. Warmer conditions impact forest health, which can lead to invasive species like the bark beetle remaining longer and reaching higher latitudes. “Fire seasons” start earlier and last longer. Less snow affects stream flows and available water. All of these factors can impact homes in the WUI.

Debates over the “natural” or “unspoiled” beauty of WUI landscapes abound as we adapt those areas for our use. When fire is removed from the WUI, however, what remains years later may not be “natural” at all. Some argue that development in the WUI should be stopped, and while this argument has its merits, it runs into an array of competing interests. As our climate changes, a better option is to educate WUI residents on their responsibilities in mitigating the effects of wildland fires. Information and knowledge are the focus of NFPA’s advocacy efforts toward residents in the WUI, and the national Firewise Communities® program plays an important part in this outreach. This knowledge can empower residents to decide for themselves how to live resiliently in the landscape, and who to work with to protect their communities.

People around the world are seeing in their fire seasons what a changing world climate means for temperature, moisture, and wind conditions, all of which are key factors in the size and intensity of wildfires. This winter, wildfires in Australia, Spain, South Africa, Greece, and elsewhere made headlines. Those events served as further reminders of the direct connection between global warming and structural fires in the WUI, and why climate change needs to be part of the discussion of how to remain safe against the threat of wildfire.

LUCIAN DEATON manages the Firewise Communities and Fire Adapted Communities Programs in NFPA’s Wildland Fire Operations Division. Top Photograph: Lcpl. Joshua Murray/ZUMAWire/Newscom