Push for More State, Local Action Needed to Stem the Tide of U.S. Wildfire Loss
JIM PAULEY, PRESIDENT & CEO
With the autumn months upon us, fire managers and residents living in the western U.S. remain vigilant as roughly 50 large active wildfires continue to burn across 10 states. Today, wildfire season is lasting longer than a few decades before – three and a half months longer according to the data – based on conditions like forests full of burnable fuel and a more arid climate that have allowed fires to start and keep burning.
In late September President Joe Biden visited areas impacted by the Caldor Fire, a 220,000-plus acre fire burning across the Sierra Nevada mountains in Northern California. It was once again a wake-up call to the level of devastation caused by wildfires. As a result of the ongoing devastation, the federal government is awakening to the fact that a significant investment needs to be made for wildfire mitigation – not just more dollars for suppression. NFPA applauds this broader thinking at the federal level as well as a more focused look at long term solutions to the wildfire problem. However, we don’t believe that placing the responsibility for the heart of the wildfire crisis – the communities in the way of the flames – on the shoulders of the federal government alone will move the needle towards sustainable change.
To truly tackle the wildfire challenge, we must encourage local and state governments to act in tandem with federal efforts to mitigate wildfire severity. Outthink Wildfire™, an NFPA policy action approach lays out what is needed. These efforts include promoting retrofits of homes to reduce their vulnerability to ignition and requiring all new construction to meet the latest codes and standards, as well as abide by sound land use practices. A consistent message from all elected officials, from the President to local mayors, will help gain acceptance for these common-sense fire safety measures, from clearing vegetation and debris from five feet around a home to recognizing that some land is just too hazardous and too dangerous to defend to allow for homes and human settlement.
For years, we have spread homes and neighborhoods on landscapes prone to fire, neglected the management of those lands to lower the risk of catastrophic fires, and kicked the can down the road on dealing with either of these issues. Therefore, NFPA is encouraged to see proposals like those under debate on Capitol Hill that will start to confront what’s been long neglected. Elected officials can offer no more excuses for failing to prepare for wildfire and must take swift action to mitigate the risks of wildfire disasters. Wildfires are going to happen and fire departments cannot extinguish them all at a pace to save all people and property in their paths.
We all have the power to break the cycle and get back on track toward a more sustainable future. If we truly want to stem the tide of destruction, local governments must address the risks they face because their residents are living on borrowed time. The time is now to transform every at-risk community to weather the embers, wind-driven flames, and smoke of our new wildfire reality.