Author(s): James Pauley. Published on January 2, 2019.

Wildfire & the Ecosystem


It’s time we took a comprehensive approach to addressing the wildfire issue, and NFPA’s Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem gives us a logical way to organize our thinking.

Consider the impact of just one recent wildfire. In November, the Camp Fire in Northern California killed at least 86 people, destroyed more than 19,000 structures, and burned an estimated 240 square miles. Estimated losses approach $13 billion. There is no single solution to such an enormous problem, but the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem offers an effective way to understand the elements we need to tackle.

One cog in the ecosystem focuses on an informed public. At NFPA, we have been informing the public for more than 20 years about wildfire risk, as well as steps people can take to reduce risk to their homes and communities. Even so, a recurring wildfire problem is the public’s reluctance to evacuate when it should. As one California firefighter recently told me, the loss of life related to wildfire could be reduced if “people would just get out when we tell them to get out.”

Another ecosystem cog focuses on current codes and standards, and another on ensuring that reference standards are followed. We see little interest among policy makers to use key standards such as NFPA 1141, Fire Protection Infrastructure for Land Development in Wildland, Rural, and Suburban Areas, and NFPA 1144, Reducing Structure Ignition Hazards from Wildland Fire. The general response is that they will make construction too expensive. But the conditions that lead to wildfires are not going to improve, so we need to take actions that put the investment in safety up front instead of enduring huge losses after the fact.

Even in California, where a regulatory environment supports wildfire safety, the sheer number of people and properties in at-risk areas mean the code compliance system—another ecosystem cog—can become overwhelmed. We also see the need to improve workforce skills, also an ecosystem cog, related to construction methods that better perform in wildfire-prone areas. The NFPA Wildfire Mitigation Specialist credential is a great example of a way to increase the skill set and boost education on wildfire ignition potential.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to all of those who have suffered loss in the recent fires and to the first responder community that has worked diligently to contain them.

For more on the ecosystem, see the magazine’s new “Ecosystem Watch”.