Until 1998, when I first learned about wildland/urban interface fire and Firewise principles at a workshop, I worked for a decade on flood mitigation and safety. I thought wildfires were something that “belonged” to firefighters; I’d never thought about what people could do to prevent damage and loss. During the workshop, the most eye-opening information for me was a census map showing US population growth by census tract from 1990 to 2000. The presenter (later my boss at NFPA) pointed out how many places experiencing rapid growth were also known wildfire hazard areas. “Where wildfires have been,” he said, “wildfires will be again.”
As my personal “aha!” moment unfolded, I realized that wildfires, like floods, were natural phenomena that only became disasters when interacting with our (frequently unplanned and seldom appropriately engineered) built environment and patterns of development. I realized this problem of disastrous wildfire losses with hundreds of homes burning down in a single event was largely a matter of design and planning. Just like our national history with floods, quakes and windstorms, Americans were building in harm’s way and failing to take natural phenomena like wildfire into account when designing and developing communities, homes, businesses and infrastructure.
Unlike floods, hurricanes and earthquakes, however, wildfire is quite easy to mitigate if you know where to begin. Fortunately for property owners exposed to this risk, it’s often the little things they do – clearing gutters, trimming lawns, using readily available and affordable building materials – that help their homes and businesses resist ignition and thus minimize the likelihood of being counted among disaster victims when the next wildfire burns. Fire science research has shown that home design and materials make an enormous difference in resisting ignition. Thoughtful landscaping and careful maintenance are an important part of the safety package for properties in high risk areas, as these practices reduce available fuel for a fire.
Because wildfires are the only natural hazard that can be instigated by humans through careless action or malicious intent, many people assume that fire response and suppression efforts are all that is needed to solve the disaster problem. Fire suppression tactics are successful in keeping fires small in the vast majority of cases, and community and structure design can contribute to the effectiveness of firefighting during wildfires. When fire conditions are extreme, however, and fire suppression is overwhelmed, the design, siting, construction and maintenance of structures can make all the difference between a large fire and a major disaster. Where we build and how we build are the key factors in wildfire safety today and into the future.
Image credit: Mapping Census 2000: The Geography of U.S. Diversity, Brewer & Suchan, ESRI Press, 2001. Dark blue counties experienced up to a tripling in population from 1990-2000; the 15 fastest-growing counties are circled; most have significant wildfire exposure.