Published on March 29, 2022.

Now or Never

As the scope and destructive capacity of wildfires intensify, more communities are signing on to NFPA’s Firewise USA program. But it needs to happen faster.

BY MEGAN FITZGERALD-MCGOWAN 


In 2016 it was Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, two Tennessee towns severely impacted by a wildfire that killed 19 people and injured nearly 200.

In 2017 it was Santa Rosa, California, where thousands of homes were destroyed by the Tubbs Fire, which killed at least 22 people in Sonoma County.

In 2018 it was Paradise, California, which was nearly obliterated by the Camp Fire. Eighty-five people died. In 2020 it was Malden, Washington, a small farming community where wildfire destroyed 80 percent of the structures. Last year it was Grizzly Flats, the small California community where an estimated 450 out of the town’s 600 homes were destroyed by wildfire, and the suburban stretch between Denver and Boulder, Colorado, where nearly 1,000 homes burned in a fast-moving wildfire on December 30.

These are just a few of the communities that have been profoundly affected by recent wildfires. Unfortunately, they won’t be the last. As fire behavior has become more aggressive and widespread over the past decade, due in part to drought, warming temperatures, and decades of management practices in fire-prone areas, more and more communities across the country find themselves under threat from wildfire. By one estimate, at least 70,000 communities in the US face wildfire risk. 

That urgency is an important factor in the recent growth of Firewise USA®, the program I manage for NFPA’s Wildfire division. Over the past five years, 1,000 new communities have joined Firewise, which now numbers more than 1,800. California alone has brought in more than 300 new communities since 2019. We continue to see growth in other western states and across the country as residents, communities, and wildfire practitioners grapple with a complex combination of changing conditions and evolving threats. 

Firewise is the only program of its kind in the country. Administered by NFPA and  co-sponsored by the USDA Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters, Firewise specifically targets existing homes and communities, providing a framework for voluntary, and critically important, action that property owners can follow to protect themselves against the threat of wildfire. The steps promoted by Firewise are practical and straightforward, such as retrofitting homes with noncombustible materials to make them more resistant to ignition from wildfire and embers. Space can be created around the base of the home and kept free of combustible materials, and additional space can be created between areas of vegetation within the home ignition zone. Annual maintenance activities can remove dead leaves, pine needles, and other debris from the home and property to minimize ignition risk. While many of these steps may seem small, they can result in significantly improved wildfire protection when practiced at the community level. These steps are detailed at nfpa.org/preparinghomesforwildfire.

While the recent Firewise growth is encouraging, it is not proceeding at the pace we need. Wildfire organizations need to work to increase the number of people following the kind of science-based recommendations promoted by Firewise. To support these efforts, agencies and organizations need consistent funding for staff and projects, and residents need access to financial support to assist with improvements. Community wildfire efforts need to do a better job at telling success stories so that residents realize that there are many things they can do to reduce their wildfire risk, while recognizing the level of commitment necessary to make it happen.

Firewise is also an important component of Outthink Wildfire, the new NFPA initiative dedicated to ending the large-scale destruction of communities by wildfire. The loss of Grizzly Flats, Paradise, and many others prompted the creation of Outthink Wildfire, which is designed to help communities foster collaboration, enact change, achieve resilience, and protect themselves from wildfire. One of the difficulties in pursuing these goals is understanding whether new funding for wildfire mitigation will apply to new construction and rebuilding in wildfire-stricken areas, or if it will be available to help harden existing homes and communities. This is the kind of detail that NFPA’s Outthink Wildfire policy team can influence by working with federal, state, and local governments to devise legislative solutions that support community wildfire preparation. 

For more on Firewise, visit nfpa.org/firewise.

Megan Fitzgerald-McGowan is manager of NFPA’s Firewise USA program. Top photograph: Getty Images