Author(s): Michele Steinberg. Published on March 2, 2020.

A Way Forward

Experts from a range of fields are coming together to find new approaches to the wildfire problem 

Accepting that humans cannot stop wildfires from happening, no matter how much effort and money we throw at the task, is a necessary cultural shift that many wildfire experts believe is long overdue. Only when we accept that fire is a natural part of the landscape that cannot be eliminated, like wind and rain, will we finally get serious about finding ways to effectively live alongside it.

This idea of cohabitation with fire, rather than control over it, seems to be taking root in a bigger way in wildfire research. A great example is an upcoming event, “Preparing for Disaster: Workshop on Advancing WUI Resilience,” hosted by the Fire Protection Research Foundation in March in San Francisco.

Many workshops and conferences I’ve attended feature expert perspectives, but ultimately affirm that we will continue to do the same things we’ve always done and hope for different outcomes. The Foundation workshop, however, is based on action—specifically, actions we can take immediately to improve our current and future resilience to wildfire risk. There are still many unanswered questions about how to effectively build more resilient communities in the wildland/urban interface, partly because our focus for so many years has been on wildfire suppression, not resilience. During the Foundation workshop, experts from across an array of fields, from academia to the fire service to public policy, will engage in numerous sessions to identify what those knowledge gaps are and come up with immediate and realistic actions to close them.

As part of my work on the oversight panel for this project, I recently spoke to two of the fire protection engineers who proposed the workshop—Dr. Michael Gollner of UC Berkeley, and Maria Theodori of Reax Engineering, also based in Berkeley—who have already identified several important unknowns that hinder community resilience strategies. For instance, there is still limited understanding of how wildfire spreads once it enters communities, which makes it hard to accurately map and model wildfire risk to structures. If we could better predict wildfire spread from structure to structure, we could design communities to limit or eliminate the potential fire risk.

On the social side, there is a lack of motivation and few incentives for individuals, communities, and even state and federal governments to make changes that could significantly reduce the wildfire threat. How can we fix this equation so that resilient building and development is the easy, affordable choice for homeowners and policymakers? We also need better tools for people trying to do the right thing. As Gollner pointed out in our discussion, there is no risk-informed tool to help engineers, planners, builders, and architects appropriately design or retrofit buildings and developments in a wildfire-smart way. There’s no easy or effective means for them to understand the wildfire risk contained in their decisions, how to plan and build safer homes, or how to balance resilience with their other community development goals.

By the end of the upcoming workshop, we will have a roadmap in place to address these unknowns. The group will decide which issues are most urgent for improving wildfire resilience and set a course to get there. A solution to just one of these unknowns could potentially have an enormous impact on future development in fire-prone areas.

This kind of thinking is the way forward to addressing the global wildfire problem. Rather than continue the disproportionately large societal investment in fighting wildfires—a strategy that experts say simply does not solve the problem—we instead need more research to improve our understanding of how we can build better communities that can resist wildfire’s inevitable arrival. We cannot stop the fires from happening. But we can stop building communities that are destined to burn.

Michele Steinberg is director of the wildfire division at NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler