Our nation’s history is awash in stories about devastating wildfires including the Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin in 1871 that claimed an estimate of 1,200 to 2,400 lives lost; the Great Burn in 1910 that destroyed about three million acres in the Northwest; and more recently, the firestorms in Southern California in 2003 and 2007; the 2011 Bastrop Complex in Texas; Waldo Canyon, Colorado in 2012; Yarnell, Arizona, in 2013 where 19 wildland firefighters perished, and so many more. Are we as a nation doomed to suffer devastating losses every time there is a large wildfire event, or can we use research about wildfires and lessons learned from the past to make changes to our homes and communities to make them more resilient?
Last week, NFPA conducted a seminar in Spokane, Washington to help fire service personnel obtain the skills and science-based knowledge to help teach residents in their respective communities how to make changes to their homes and landscape to reduce risk and loss. The Assessing Wildfire Hazards in the Home Ignition Zone seminar, also known as NFPA’s HIZ seminar, was supported through a FEMA/DHS Fire Prevention and Safety Grant. While we were setting up for the class there, we noticed a historical marker in the park across the street. It memorialized the Great Fire of 1899 in Spokane that devastated three-quarters of the business district of the community. This is an area rich in wildfire history and fire loss.
What impressed both the instructor, Gary Marshall, and myself was that the “students” from this class were so eager to learn all that they could to help their communities. Seminar participants represented a variety of fire departments from volunteer, paid, state, rural large city and tribal. Many told us they had or were going to order Firewise materials to help them teach residents what steps they could take to help themselves. We all agreed that these fire departments were not going to be able to have a fire truck at every home during a large event.
They were eager to share their new skills from the HIZ seminar and work collaboratively the Firewise way with members of their communities to help them prioritize and complete projects. They told us that the science-based knowledge they gained in class would help them be able to guide their neighbors to make changes themselves that will make a difference. We all agreed knowledge applied through behavior change is what will make a difference. One fire safety specialist shared, “In our community presentations, we will apply what we learned in class to promote Fire Adapted Communities and the Firewise program to include more HIZ information and push for behavior change.”