Author(s): Birgitte Messerschmidt. Published on June 2, 2022.

Scant Protection

A pair of new reports challenges standards developers to improve wildfire protection in building codes


Current building codes are not strong enough to reduce wildfire risk to homes and other structures, and until they are we will continue to witness the unnecessary destruction of property, including entire communities, by wildfire.

That was one takeaway in a pair of new reports, released the same week in March. “Spreading like Wildfire: The Rising Threat of Extraordinary Landscape Fires,” published by the United Nations, lays out how wildfires are impacting people and the environment and examines risk mitigation and wildfire management. The clear message is that it is not possible to eliminate wildfire risk and that we must learn to live with fire. The second report, “WUI Structure/Parcel/Community Fire Hazard Mitigation Methodology,” illustrates how hazard mitigation in the wildland/urban interface (WUI) is a balance between hardening structures and reducing the exposure from wildfire, with an emphasis on the need for structures to be able to withstand these fires and not rely on intervention from first responders.

The timing of the reports and their big-picture messages is critical. Recent studies by NFPA Research show that wildfires are responsible for more than three-quarters of the costs associated with large-loss fires in the United States over the past decade. The human cost is also increasing, with wildfires dominating the list of fires resulting in 10 or more fatalities. These numbers leave little doubt that wildfires are playing a larger role in the fire experience in the US and around the world.

A clear message of the UN report is that because wildfire is a necessary component of the landscape, it is essential that we embrace a more adaptive management of fire. Where wildfire can become a disaster is when it meets the WUI, and to mitigate that risk it is necessary to look at the built environment and the role it plays in transforming a wildfire into a disastrous urban conflagration. It’s a sobering read, but the report also offers specific actions we can take to manage and reduce our wildfire risk, with recommendations including the improvement of fuel management, wildfire monitoring, and firefighter safety. The report’s authors also call for rebalancing investments in suppression to proactive mitigation and management.

The WUI report, created jointly by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, dovetails in a number of important ways with the UN report. The findings are based on information collected from previous fires, as well as from laboratory and large-scale tests on WUI fire propagation and mitigation. Among the key findings is the demonstration that, for high-density communities in wildfire-prone areas, full community participation in hardening and mitigation efforts is critical, as only a few insufficiently hardened properties can jeopardize an entire community in a wildfire event. The report underscores the importance of building codes in this effort, while observing that current codes could be made more robust to protect communities against wildfire—suggestions worth considering for future editions of the codes.

It will require significant political will to take the steps necessary to end the destruction of communities by wildfire. That’s precisely why NFPA launched Outthink Wildfire™, the policy initiative created to foster collaboration among all levels of government in order to enact change and enhance protection from wildfire. We must take the latest research offered in the UN and NIST reports and make it actionable through bold policy decisions. We cannot accept another wildfire disaster when we know what needs to be done.

Birgitte Messerschmidt is director of the Applied Research Group at NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler