Ending community destruction by wildfire starts with better policy
BY JIM PAULEY, PRESIDENT AND CEO, NFPA
America is facing a serious wildfire problem. News headlines underscore what we already know – the situation is continually getting worse. If you don’t quite believe what you hear, you only have to look at the facts to see that wildfire is now considered today’s urban conflagration. In just the past three years, 40,000 structures in the US have been destroyed. There have been 100 fatalities, and nearly $40 billion in insured losses due to wildfire have been paid out. Each year, the US spends at least $2 billion supporting fire suppression yet structure loss due to wildfire has increased more than 160 percent.
We can no longer ignore the alarm bells that are sounding loud and clear. We must take stronger action. We can no longer kick the can down the road in the hopes that the situation will magically fix itself. What is being done today is not working. There are two facts that underscore the need to take more aggressive steps. The first fact is that wildfires are going to happen, whether they’re caused by nature, people, or the built environment. But what most people fail to realize is the second fact. Fire departments will not be staffed or equipped to save all property in the path of a wildfire. It’s true that voluntary individual and community actions play a role in overall efforts to mitigate hazards. Programs like Firewise USA® that focuses largely on existing homes and steps residents can take to reduce risk around the house and adjacent property, and the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network that works with communities across the nation to create a more wildfire-resilient future, have done a lot to help communities live safely with fire. These actions alone, however, are not enough to dramatically change outcomes from wildfires in the wildland/urban interface (WUI).
As the average number of acres burned in wildfires each year rises exponentially, communities in wildfire hazard zones simply cannot continue down the same path. Communities must adopt practices to lower the risk to lives, homes, businesses, and overall prosperity, or face the inevitable truth that we will suffer more loss of life and property.
We need a new approach now.
The approach is Outthink Wildfire™, a bold new initiative led by NFPA that lays out five policy changes that must occur at all levels of government that will make it easier for communities to foster collaboration, enact change, achieve resilience, and protect themselves from wildfire. NFPA believes that the implementation of these changes can end the destruction of communities from wildfire in the US in the next 30 years.
It begins with requiring all homes and businesses in the WUI be ignition resistant to stem the tide of losses from wildfires. It stresses the importance of using and enforcing current codes and standards, as well as sound land use practices, to ensure a safer home and community from the start. When it comes to the safety of our firefighters, Outthink Wildfire underscores the need for more and better training and protective equipment to ensure fire departments are properly prepared to respond safely and effectively to wildfire. Over 100 million acres of federal land are at high or severe risk of wildfire. Outthink Wildfire calls for government to increase resources for vegetative fuel management to treat the estimated 6.8 to 12 million acres experts believe is needed to restore and maintain these lands. And while government officials, from politicians to foresters, have significant roles to play in tackling the wildfire challenge, it is also the public who must understand its role and take action in reducing wildfire risk. From initiating retrofits and maintaining ignition-resistant properties to heeding emergency evacuation orders, homeowners can help their communities achieve gains in saving homes and lives.
That quest for broad input is essential at this very first step as well. In response to this most recent request, we have begun soliciting feedback from stakeholders. The input we’ve received thus far reflects a wide range of opinions and perspectives. Many have expressed support for the standard while others have animatedly voiced their objections. This spirited dialogue contributes to helping us making well-informed decisions that serve our stakeholders’ needs.
Using the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem framework, NFPA will collaborate with others to support the five key actions laid out in Outthink Wildfire to save lives and property in wildfire-prone communities. And in the months ahead, you will hear more from us as we develop federal, state, and local policy strategies to ensure that all levels of government have the information they need to initiate actionable change.
It is only through a bold, coordinated effort that we can take giant steps forward and allow future generations to talk about large scale wildfire destruction as a thing of the past. Together, we can make a difference.
Learn more about Outthink Wildfire by visiting nfpa.org/wildfirepolicy.