Author(s): Michele Steinberg. Published on April 5, 2022.

Growth Opportunities

Why is there such a shortage of skilled, trained professionals who can design and build wildfire-safe buildings?

Disaster drives demand. It’s the message I heard repeated, in so many words, at a recent conference of disaster resilience experts. More hurricanes, floods, and wildfires wreaking havoc across the country have had an enormous impact on housing stock and community infrastructure. Yet most communities lack a key ingredient for restoring normalcy and economic health following disasters: a trained and skilled workforce.

Just as NFPA and the broader safety community have rallied to help professionals across a range of industries skill up to tackle emerging hazards such as fires in buildings under construction and fires in alternative-fuel vehicles, we should also be broadcasting the desperate need for skilled and knowledgeable designers, architects, installers, contractors, and more to help us create wildfire-resilient communities, and to assist in the rebuilding effort when communities burn.

Consider Hurricane Michael, which struck the Florida Panhandle in 2018 as a Category 5 storm. Michael damaged or destroyed roughly 60 percent of Bay County’s housing stock, and a year later more than 7,800 people remained homeless. Similarly, the 22 wildfires that occurred around the same time in Northern California, notably the Camp Fire that devastated the town of Paradise, left more than 350,000 people displaced, with 14,000 homes destroyed in Paradise alone. On the recent three-year anniversary of the fire, just over 1,000 homes had been rebuilt. Whether the culprit is wind, water, or fire, the demand for skilled workers to rebuild after a catastrophe has never been higher.

Admittedly, there are many forces at work that can slow the recovery process. Our new pandemic reality has made us all too aware of phrases like “supply chain interruption” and “the Great Resignation,” trends that make it difficult to secure both the materials and the labor force necessary to get communities back on their feet quickly. Post-disaster rebuilding efforts are generally a patchwork of skilled and unskilled volunteers, government aid, and sometimes ad hoc coalitions of builders and developers. Yet even in calmer times, in locations where wildfire risk is well-documented, property owners struggle to find qualified service providers for home upgrades that would increase their wildfire safety.

Ignition-resistant building standards, listed materials, and design guidelines for wildfire resilience all exist through NFPA and other standards-development organizations, as well as through government sources. NFPA provides valuable training ( and even a credential ( to help professionals hone their skills in wildfire-safe design, construction, and inspection. Yet most states and regions do not yet require wildfire-resistant design elements in new construction, and they pay even less attention to wildfire risk reduction connected to home upgrades, retrofits, or substantial improvements.

We don’t expect property owners to upgrade their own electrical wiring systems, and we don’t expect them to install their own fire sprinklers. Yet NFPA and other safety advocates tend to aim most of their retrofitting and mitigation advice at residents and homeowners, most of whom are likely not licensed professionals. Those are important messages; while you don’t need special credentials to clean out your gutters or rake your yard, a DIY deck addition built with combustible materials could spell doom for your home in a wildfire. That’s why it’s critically important for new construction, post-disaster rebuilds, and everyday home upgrades and retrofits to be done with wildfire risk in mind. Until private-sector professionals embrace the business opportunities of wildfire-resilient construction, the wildfire disaster cycle will continue.

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