Recognizing a need for clarification: Firewise recognition vs. certification

As wildfires ignite landscapes and communities during this active fire year, interest in community action to improve wildfire safety is at an all-time high. Folks are seeking out the Firewise USA® recognition program in greater numbers than ever before, with hundreds of new sites in the process of having their applications approved. This is great news, but when articles come out that a new site has met the criteria, the headlines often say that the community has become “Firewise-certified” or “earned their certification from Firewise.” What's in a name? And why doesn't “recognition” smell as sweet to copy editors as “certification?” Often, the brief articles I see celebrating a community's hard work to become safer from wildfire will use NFPA's information about Firewise verbatim, and will talk about the community being recognized for its efforts, even when the headline says “certified.” All this would be simply a fussy English major's headache, if it weren't for the real concern our program team has about what “certification” and “certified” imply. A quick web search showed a pretty consistent pattern that certification applies most often to people, not to groups, and implies a high professional standard of achievement that allows an individual to access a certain job role or professional qualification. Certified accountants come to mind. One of the few certifications I found applying to an organization had to do with the ability of organizations to access specific government funding. And of course, NFPA develops and provides certifications of various kinds to help fire inspectors, electricians, and others demonstrate technical competency in their fields. NFPA's national recognition of neighborhoods where residents organize and follow guidelines to become safer from wildfire doesn't apply to individuals (and certainly not individual homes). Yes, there are criteria that have to be met, but they are fairly flexible and are intended to encourage people living in high-risk areas to get started on a years-long, community-wide journey toward greater safety. Unlike a certification, Firewise USA recognition is not an end-point, nor the end-all-and-be-all of wildfire safety. The more we see “certified” and “certification” being tossed around in articles and online conversation, the more the perception of Firewise USA seems to become warped and conflated with individual homes meeting some mythical standard of safety or insurability. This perception is understandable, especially in California, where more and more people living in high-risk areas have experienced insurance rate increases or have had to shop for insurance when their carrier declines to continue covering their property. However, we simply can't claim that any given property is safer or its risk has been reduced just because the minimum community-wide criteria have been met on a voluntary basis. While we've seen positive effects on overall community safety over time, Firewise recognition is not a magic wand we wave to make a home with a flammable roof and overgrown vegetation safe from wildfire. Recognition is our encouragement and acknowledgment that communities have taken the first steps toward safety, and toward a sustained effort to change the results when wildfire strikes. Photo: Community members presented with Firewise USA Recognition sign, NFPA.
Wildfires happening in the US

What’s needed for wildfire safety? A briefing for Congressional staff

As wildfires continue to erupt in Western states this season, safety advocates teamed up to provide a briefing to members of Congress and their staff, hosted by the Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI). As NFPA’s Wildfire Division Director, I joined colleagues from the fire service and building code community to discuss trends in wildfire frequency and magnitude, and to discuss what federal policymakers and agency leaders can do to support loss reduction, community resilience, and safety for first responders. Participants heard from Chief Rich Elliott, the chair of the Wildland Fire Policy Committee for the International Association of Fire Chiefs and a deputy fire chief with Kittitas Valley Fire and Rescue in Washington state, and from Karl Fippinger, VP of Government Relations on fire and disaster mitigation for the International Code Council. After I reviewed the current state and future potential of large, damaging wildfires across the country, my co-presenters highlighted the needs for fire service training and protective equipment, described the role of federal agencies and policymakers in influencing wildfire risk reduction and safety, and emphasized the need for support of the use and enforcement of sound building codes and land use plans. The briefing was a key opportunity to discuss the tenets of Outthink Wildfire™, NFPA’s wildfire policy actions we believe that all levels of government should embrace to influence a future where wildfire disasters become a thing of the past. You can view the webinar recording at CFSI’s website and learn more about their mission to educate members of Congress about fire and life safety issues.
Home on fire

Add these 3 videos to your community's next online gathering

In many places, COVID-19 and its Delta variant continue to make in-person meetings difficult, but that doesn't have to stop your wildfire educational outreach with your fellow residents.  Reach your neighbors online with these three quick videos from Firewise USA® on YouTube to spark the conversation about how they can reduce the risk of wildfire around their homes. For an introduction, the 2-minute video, “If Your Home Doesn't Ignite it Can't Burn”, introduces viewers to the ember risk and explains that there is something they can do to protect their home from wildfire.  The video helps to focus the resident on the “immediate zone” of 0-5 feet around their property where debris clearing can make a big difference.  The video can lead to a discussion about the effects of recent wildfires and what their property conditions are right now.   Next, dive into the “immediate zone” of 0-5 feet around structures with the 2-minute video, “5 Key Areas Around the Home you Must Examine when Assessing Wildfire Risk.”  The video reminds us that where the wind piles up leaves and seasonal debris is also where the embers from a wildfire will pile up too.  The video's walking assessment quickly addresses areas next to the home, gutters, roofs, vents & screen meshing, and any vegetation near the structure.  Residents sharing examples of the work they do around their own homes can strengthen this video's message well.     Finally, step out to the “intermediate zone” of 5-30 feet around structures with the 4-minute video, “Your Home and Wildfire, Choices that can Make a Difference.”  Learn from a homeowner's testimonial about the value of mitigation work around the property and the discuss their message that this work does not mean clear-cutting, but is about making wise choices about grasses and ladder fuels. Host an online meeting with your neighbors on one of the many video-conferences platforms and play these 3 videos during the educational outreach event.  Additionally, you can also link to these videos from your community website or social media page to spread the educational outreach message with neighbors and collectively reduce your risk from wildfire.  Follow NFPA's FireBreak blog and you can also follow me on twitter @LucianNFPA for more international wildfire and policy related topics.
Wildfire with trees in the foreground

The breaking of yet another wildfire record calls for a holistic approach to solutions now

On Sunday, the Dixie Fire in California became the state’s second largest wildfire in history, having consumed 463,000 acres across northern California and destroying over 400 homes.  It has impacted the lives of many and as firefighters work valiantly to confront its spread, it stubbornly rages at 21% contained.  If there is a familiar sound to this record achievement, it’s because the last, “2nd largest wildfire in California’s history”, was the Mendocino Complex extinguished in January 2019.  Then it was when the SCU Lightning Complex and the Creek Fire contested for the “2nd largest” record in late 2020. Much like the recent Olympics, we can’t be surprised anymore when wildfire records are also routinely broken.  This plain reality lead NFPA to develop Outthink Wildfire™, a policy initiative that outlines five tenets for all levels of government to greatly enhance protection from wildfire. It is rooted in two facts - wildfires are going to happen, and the fire service will not be able to extinguish these fires at a pace to save people and property in their path going forward.  This isn’t a knock against fire services.  In many cases, they need more resources, but it’s a realization that they need all of us to not expect them to shoulder the burden alone. Outthink Wildfire™ calls for a holistic-approach solution, spanning where and how we build, fire service needs, land management, and public education.  It is simply unfair and increasingly unrealistic to expect firefighters to “just put out the fires”, while we continue to live in places without reflection of the risks, allow lands to go unmanaged, and leave wildfire education only for those with the time and resources to engage at their own pace.  This holistic-approach solution seeks a balanced wildfire response ecosystem to achieve the goal of eliminating the loss of communities from wildfire in the next 30 years.  It means: Getting all homes and business in the wildland urban interface (WUI) more resistant to ignition from wildfire embers and flames. This means incentivizing retrofitting, providing support to those residents most at risk but least able to build resiliency, and ensuring a fire ground for the fire service that is safer and less likely to become an urban conflagration. Using and enforcing current codes and standards, as well as sound land use practices, for new development and rebuilding in wildfire-prone areas.Local leaders and planners can make sure the loss of communities from wildfire is a part of our past and not the next event of our future. Ensuring fire departments for communities in the WUI, especially rural and volunteer departments, are prepared with the right equipment, training, and operational funding, to respond safely and effectively to wildfire every time. Working with Federal, state, and local governments to increase resources for vegetative fuel management on public lands and maintaining robust cross-boundary, cooperative, data driven agreements to maintain healthy forests and natural lands. Building and sustaining a public that understands its role and takes sustainable action in reducing their risk. As records continue to be broken, we can no longer lean upon a few to solve the problem alone for everyone else.  A holistic-approach solution is needed in policy development and regulatory action at the Federal, state, and local levels.  Learn more about Outthink Wildfire™’s call to action and play your part in the solution. Photo Source: Pixabay
A wildfire burning at night

Maintaining vigilance through the 2021 fire year

The 2021 fire year is halfway through, and it has been a busy one so far. As of today, the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) reports over 32,000 fires had been reported, burning over 1.6 million acres.  Communities have been threatened and homes have been lost. Looking forward, the National Interagency Fire Center’s (NIFC’s) Predictive Services newest National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook for July, August, September, and October 2021 shows much of the west above normal wildfire potential. This is setting up for a volatile situation. While the main objective of NIFC’s outlook is to improve information to fire management decision makers for proactive wildland fire management, thus better protecting lives and property, reducing firefighting costs and improving firefighting efficiency; it can also be of use to wildfire preparedness practitioners and residents. The outlook reminds us to be proactive, dedicating time throughout the year to improve your home's chances of withstanding a wildfire. Here are a few actions you can take: Clean out leaves, needles, and other debris from your roof and gutters Move any flammable material away from wall exteriors – mulch, flammable plants, leaves and needles, firewood piles – anything that can burn. Remove anything stored underneath decks or porches. Screen or box-in areas below patios and decks with wire mesh to prevent debris and combustible materials from accumulating Create space between plants, trees and shrubs in the 5-30 foot zone from the house, limit to small clusters of a few of each to break up the continuity of the vegetation across the landscape. For more ideas on what steps to take around your home and property visit our Preparing Homes for Wildfires Page.  You can also order a package of our Reducing Wildfire Risks in the Home Ignition Zones Poster checklists to share with your friends and neighbors.
A wildfire in the hills

Just the facts: fireworks pose special dangers this holiday season

Americans celebrate July 4 with many traditions, including fireworks, to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence by representatives of 13 British colonies to break away from England and form a new nation. We love and cherish our holiday traditions, but unfortunately, conditions in many states make our use of fireworks especially dangerous and deadly this year. Deaths and injuries from consumer fireworks occur every year, and so do brush, grass and forest fires. The challenge is clear. Hot, dry weather and ongoing drought in many states add up to an ominous outlook for wildfire ignitions this summer. As one of my favorite Founding Fathers once said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence." John Adams, first U.S. vice-president and second U.S. president, wasn’t referring to the statistics related to fireworks, but his words certainly apply when confronting our national wish to celebrate as usual in the face of overwhelming evidence of the risks to people, lands, and property. Did you know that the 4th and 5th of July are the peak days for wildfire incidents? Local fire departments respond to more than 7,000 wildfires on those days, on average. NFPA’s latest Brush, Grass, and Forest Fires report show annual averages for July 4 incidents at five times the daily average.  In addition, a recent fire science study on the impacts of human-ignited wildfires on U.S. homes notes the singularity of early July in terms of human-caused wildfire. The report concludes that, “People are starting almost all of the wildfires that threaten our homes.” In addition to wildfires that threaten lives, property, and challenge the ability of firefighters in drought-stricken regions to readily suppress them, fireworks do damage every year to people – one-third of whom are children. In 2018, U.S. hospital emergency rooms treated an estimated 9,100 people for fireworks-related injuries. More than a third of those injuries were to the eye or other parts of the head. Sadly, in 2020, fireworks injuries sent an estimated 15,600 people to the hospital, with more injuries seen last year than in the previous 15 years. Many fire scientists and land managers are so dismayed by these facts and the severe current wildfire conditions that they are circulating a sign-on statement pleading with the public to forego fireworks this July 4th. NFPA’s position has long been that the use of consumer fireworks is inherently unsafe. Recent changes to laws which have loosened the restriction on sales of more powerful pyrotechnics to the public intensifies our view. Get the facts, as well as fun alternatives to fireworks to celebrate our nation’s birthday this coming week on NFPA’s Fireworks page. Help your family enjoy the celebration while staying out of the emergency room and keeping your neighbors safer from accidental wildfire ignitions.
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