Author(s): Michele Steinberg. Published on September 1, 2020.

Giant Step

A government-led effort results in a powerful new online tool to help communities evaluate—and act on—their wildfire risk

What if you knew your community had a greater risk from wildfire than most of the cities and towns in your state? What if you could see how many people in your town are especially vulnerable? Would you want to know how to reduce your risk and help your neighbors, your customers, or your constituents? A new, user-friendly tool can now help you do just that.

The online Wildfire Risk to Communities platform was born earlier this year out of an act of the 115th Congress. Buried deep within the 891-page Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 are a few brief sentences that have resulted in an effective new way to evaluate and act upon wildfire risk information. In that bit of verbiage, Congress directed the Secretary of Agriculture, via the Chief of the USDA Forest Service, to take no more than two years to create a geospatial map of the United States depicting wildfire hazard severity and to ensure it was distributed on the web. The goal was to help at-risk communities improve their understanding of their risk profile, clarify thinking on the nature and effect of wildfire risks, and develop plans to manage those risks.

The Wildfire Risk to Communities website is all that Congress ordered, with whipped cream and a cherry on top. The project marshaled known data, statistics, and proven mitigation resources, including NFPA’s wildfire safety information, to reach community leaders, fire managers, and people at risk with easy-to-use information that can motivate planning and risk-reduction actions. It helps people understand wildfire risk—the probability of fire occurrence and the intensity of the expected fires, overlaid on the built environment. Users can compare their relative risk-to-homes level to other cities, counties, or states. Finally, it provides a rich array of resources and programs for users to begin to reduce risk, starting with making changes in their own home ignition zone.

The site’s interactive array of facts and stats, backed by extensive fire science and geospatial data, succeeds in its goal of helping users understand and explore risk. Risk to homes is portrayed as a relative scale, with wildfire consequence on one axis and fire likelihood on the other. The risk rating assumes that all homes are equally susceptible to damage, so it does not account for any homes that have might been mitigated, but provides a more generalized snapshot of risk. Whether viewing a community, county, or state, users get a clear picture of risk to homes, relative exposure to flames and embers, and wildfire likelihood.

For community leaders and fire managers, the information on vulnerable populations—the number and percent of families in poverty, people with disabilities, older adults, those who have difficulty with English, and households without cars—is critically important in planning for evacuation and directing pre-fire resources to those most in need.

As the developers of the site acknowledge, and as wildfire safety practitioners and researchers know, there are limitations to the data, and gaps in our global knowledge and understanding of wildfire, including the risk to homes. But rather than allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good, as the saying goes, this government-led effort represents a significant step toward better understanding of community wildfire risks. The tool holds great promise in clearly communicating risk and what individuals and communities can do about it, supported by decades of research and the best currently available information. As the site is updated and enriched over the coming months with feedback from users, its potential uses in changing wildfire outcomes will only grow.


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