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2017

Residents, local leaders and elected officials in Payson, Arizona, have been wrangling for years about whether and how to adopt local regulations that would require wildfire safety measures in new construction as well as rules around existing home and landscape maintenance to reduce wildfire ignition risks. With my career-long interest in sound land use planning and regulations for natural hazards safety, I have been watching and waiting to see where this struggle would end up. Payson's challenges are not very different from many jurisdictions in fire prone areas around the country and even in the state of Arizona. Yet, with just as much wildfire risk as its neighbors in Prescott and Flagstaff, the town of Payson has recently rejected regulatory changes that might have influenced future development toward increased safety and sensible maintenance measures that would allow local authorities to enforce on egregious nuisance properties that pose a threat to neighbors. 

 

Why? There are lots of reasons, and to me they are both extremely frustrating and completely understandable. Some of it has to do with scale and capacity. Flagstaff and Prescott are much larger jurisdictions, and their regulatory changes have more of a chance to be enforced with more personnel and resources. Some news sources note that Flagstaff and Prescott enacted wildfire regulations only after devastating and deadly fires - and it's been 27 years since Payson was the center of attention with the 1990 Dude Fire which took the lives of 6 firefighters. Other news reports have highlighted the often ugly back-and-forth among factions in town, with different sides hardening their stance. Some continue to insist that any such regulations are "draconian" and involve cutting every tree down. Others scoff that the law has no place in telling them to clean up their pine needles or sweep their decks, and insist that the regulations are "freedom-robbing". 

 

I found it ironic in early debates about strengthening safety rules that local officials pointed to the Firewise USA program as a reason NOT to do anything more about new construction or enforceable regulations for nuisance properties. Arizona and the general region around Payson have been strong leaders in adopting the voluntary, neighborhood based program. After all, if voluntary action works so well, why should the town council have to get involved in promoting the highly unpopular notion of safety rules for private property? Along with my NFPA colleagues and co-authors Lucian Deaton and Faith Berry, I addressed this exact question in the Arizona State Law Journal in 2016. 

 

In "Firewise: The Value of Voluntary Action and Standard Approaches to Reducing Wildfire Risk," we lay out the reasons why, even if programs like Firewise generate goodwill and progress through voluntary community engagement in wildfire risk reduction, regulation is still needed. The first important point is that Firewise USA engages existing communities already living with the wildfire threat in ongoing neighborhood action. A voluntary program to address existing structures and infrastructure has no power to control the siting, design, construction and landscaping of new homes and subdivisions. Local regulations do. 

 

So many of the news stories I read through years of coverage in outlets including the Payson Roundup seemed to catalog every excuse possible as to why a regulatory approach would not benefit the town. Sadly, many of them quoted individuals who perceived the model codes proposed as involving aggressive tree removal, or not valid because it referred to conditions not specific to Payson. During the ongoing debate, news articles started to refer to the possibility of "watered-down" codes and a citizen committee who would write new standards. As my colleagues and I wrote about NFPA standards, 

"(s)uch guidance is not simply guesswork about what concepts and practical steps will make homes and communities safer from wildfire. NFPA’s primary business is a consensus codes and standards process that uses volunteer expert committees and public input to develop minimum safety standards across a range of fire, electrical and related hazards. NFPA’s technical committees are comprised of individuals from diverse disciplines, including first responders, insurance professionals, special experts, manufacturers, industry leaders, enforcers, researchers, government officials, and independent contractors. These technical committees, under the guidance of NFPA staff, develop consensus standards that can be adopted as enforceable codes or ordinances."

The work, care and expense that NFPA puts into its process is also true of other standards-making organizations. Local jurisdictions have the power to amend standards to suit their needs, but re-writing standards based on limited experience and local concerns leads to a real danger of regulations that do not hold up to science-based minimum safety standards. To put it another way, a standard for new construction in wildfire-prone areas that calls for non-flammable roofs but doesn't address windows, siding, decks and vents will not serve to ensure that ignition-resistant homes will be built.

 

Along with voluntary programs like Firewise USA, local regulations can insure that residents are adhering to science-based standards to make changes to their homes and the landscape immediately surrounding their homes to reduce the risk of loss due to a wildfire event. Regulation can encourage residents who are not participating voluntarily to engage in Firewise efforts, thereby helping to make the community as a whole safer. This is due in part to many homes in WUI communities and neighborhoods being in close proximity to each other and having what is called an overlapping home ignition zone. This means the condition of one home can affect the survivability of the next door neighbor’s home. Many of the news stories I read referred to residents, often those engaged in Firewise or individual home risk reduction on their own property, who had become frustrated by the town's inability to enforce on neighboring property with levels of poor maintenance that constitute a serious hazard.

 

Sound regulation that has been institutionalized into a state’s or community’s way of doing business has the added benefit of addressing wildfire safety in design and development and making it easier for future buyers of real property to maintain that property in a relatively Firewise condition. Standardized approaches to safer development also serve to level the playing field for developers and builders and provide a measure of equity and fairness with regard to requirements for new construction. 

 

Perhaps the most frustrating - but understandable - refrain that I read over and over again during the last several years was concern about cost. Payson officials and residents feared that regulations would cost too much for residents, or drive developers away. I wonder if anyone asked about who bears the cost of failing to regulate in order to mitigate a well-known hazard. Wildfire safety regulations cost money, that's true. So does a major wildfire that destroys homes and businesses that were built without fire safety in mind. 

NFPA's Wildfire Division has a new addition to its Denver Field Office.  Megan Fitzgerald-McGowan joined NFPA in June and will be assisting the Wildfire Division with the Firewise USA program.  Megan served as the Washington State Firewise Liaison for the last year and a half in the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

Megan brings the perspective of a state liaison to the Firewise program that manages their efforts nationally.  Currently in 42 states, the Firewise USA program has a liaison in each of those states that coordinates the Firewise efforts locally.

 

Megan has been working in and around wildfire since 2003 and is a red-carded wildland firefighter.  She holds a Master's degree in Natural Resources from the University of Idaho and a certificate in Fire Ecology, Management and Technology.  Besides moving Washington's Firewise program forward, she was also active in the state's fire coordination center.

 

Being an avid trail runner, Megan looks forward to exploring Colorado's vast trail networks with her husband and three dogs. 

Warren Edwards, a Senior Fellow with the Global Resilience Institute, (GRI), Michele Steinberg, and Tom Welle of NFPA's Wildfire Division briefed Congressional staffers interested in community resilience on the wildfire issues and challenges recently in Washington D.C. 

 

Warren discussed how GRI is looking at critical infrastructure at risk from wildfire and the potential for "western" style wildfire in the East.  GRI is part of Northeastern University and recently held a wildfire summit at NFPA Headquarters in Quincy, MA.  A key part of what that group look at was how there can be a cascading failure of critical infrastructure from a wildfire event and society's ability to be resilient to that failure.  There was also discussion on the level of awareness of wildfire risk in the East versus in the West where larger, more intense wildfires happen more frequently, but actually how more wildfires in general happen in the East.

 

Tom briefed the audience, collectively known as the Hazards Caucus Alliance, on the new types of intense fires, that aren't really all that new, and how increased costs and expenditures are not really changing the bottom line on structure losses or fatalities.  Programs such as NFPA's Firewise USA, Ready Set Go! from the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network were also discussed as means to bring residents at risk to a level of being more adapted to wildfire.

 

The main point for this group was to understand that while Wildfire is a national problem, it really demands local solutions and the hope is to provide these Congressional staffers information on how the Congress can support efforts on the local level with National policy and funding.

 

(photo by Michele Steinberg:  Tom Welle (L) and Warren Edwards)

 

To view video, click here

 

With wildfires burning in 10 U.S. states – including the 390 square mile Lodgepole fire in Montana – we are also following wildfires that have erupted across the Mediterranean region of Europe earlier this week. Our thoughts are with all those effect, both here and abroad.  

 

Fires along the French southern coast and on the Mediterranean island of Corsica have forced over 10,000 to evacuate. Many have slept on beaches to escape fires that have burned over 15 square miles. The fires are burning as hot, dry and windy weather bake the region.

 

In an article by the BBC, a firefighter explained that faced with multiple fires, “"The situation is not under control because we don't have enough resources.”

 

The reality of this statement reminds me that fire departments are not the only ones with a role to play in wildfire risk reduction. As any fire service will be overwhelmed by the scale of such fires, steps that residents can take to reduce fire threat around their homes will create a safer environment for firefighters and help them better focus their response. Learn more about what you can do to prepare for wildfire in your area.  

 

Thankfully, no fatalities have been reported thus far, though many, including responders, have been taken to hospitals with smoke inhalation.

 

Additional fires are burning across the Mediterranean region in Portugal, Italy, and along the Adriatic coast in Montenegro and Croatia. Another article from the BBC has several videos from those fires

Photo Credit: BBC News, France appeal over 'virulent' Riviera and Corsica fires 25July17, image pulled 26July17 

Picture of Brock Long speaking to FEMA Youth Preparedness Council taken by Faith Berry

I was invited to attend FEMA’s Youth Preparedness Council meeting in Washington DC. The youth from across the United States who participate are selected by FEMA to become preparedness leaders in their regions through an application process. Brock Long, FEMA’s newly appointed administrator, took the time to share with the students about how they can become a part of successfully helping their regions better be prepared for disasters. He shared the importance of good communication both external and internal to building preparedness success. Good communication he felt was not just texting, but face to face conversations which can help remove barriers and help people successfully work together to create resilient communities.

 

He also said that the students should never burn a bridge because of a disagreement, but rather accept that sometimes it is ok to disagree with others. They should learn how to talk and share time and sometimes a meal with those they disagree with to build good relationships that can ultimately solve problems. He spoke about the fact that everyone has a part to play in preparedness because preparedness solutions need to be more realistic, no one size fits all. He encouraged them to talk to people to help figure out how to create effective solutions.

 

Many Firewise neighborhoods have shared with the NFPA how they have had to build good working relationships with their local fire districts, land managing agencies, school boards, local businesses and elected officials to be successful. Good communication skills can be an integral part of creating successful preparedness project implementation in a neighborhood and larger community. NFPA’s Firewise USA program provides some great project tips that can help start the successful wildfire preparedness conversations where you live.

The July edition of the five-part Wildfire Research Fact Sheet series produced by the Firewise USA program and the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS), highlights the importance of homeowners implementing the recommended actions for attic and crawl space vents to reduce potential building ignitions during a wildfire.

 

Windblown embers are the principal cause of building ignitions during wildfires; and one potential source of those ignitions occurs when embers gain entry to a home/building through attic and crawl space vents. NFPA and IBHS encourage homeowners to install the recommended mesh screening outlined in the July fact sheet, and to eliminate or reduce storage in those locations.

 

Each fact sheet in the series provides residents living in areas that have a wildfire risk, with important research information that can be incorporated into risk reduction projects being implemented at their home. They also provide forestry agencies and fire departments with a valuable tool that can be utilized in their educational outreach efforts; complete with a customizable option that provides the ability to personalize the sheets with their agency/department logo.

 

Look for these upcoming topics in the August – October editions of the research fact sheets:  Decking; Fencing and Coatings.

Fire Break newsletterThe July issue of Fire BreakNFPA Wildfire Division's newsletter, is now available for viewing. Here's what you'll find in this month's issue:

  • A new fact sheet that explains how roofs ignite in a wildfire and the steps you can take to reduce its vulnerability
  • A strategy for how to use the right words to help increase wildfire safety engagement and participation
  • Research examining structural fire spread and how it’s helping address the growing wildfire problem

 

And much more! We want to continue to share all of this great information with you, so don't miss an issue and subscribe today. It's free! Just add your email address to our newsletter list.

According to news reports, eighty children who were camping at the Circle V Ranch were trapped at the site by the Whittier Fire. The fire had crossed the road that was the main access to the camp and there were falling trees and other road hazards that prevented them from leaving the campground during the fire. Firefighters made heroic efforts to keep the children safe and bulldoze a route for them to evacuate from the wildfire on.

 

On the Circle V web page, they shared that they provided activities and programs for children that were typical of a summer camp such as hiking, swimming, crafts etc.  According to the web page on the Circle V Campground website, the camp will be closed for the rest of the season.  It also shared that the craft shack and health office cabins were lost.  Additionally, their water treatment facility was damaged.  No estimated cost of the damage was shared.

 

Another wildfire, the Alamo Fire burned only an hour away from the location of the Whittier Fire in Santa Barbara County.  According to CAL FIRE’s website 990 fire service personnel have been sent to respond to that fire. A State of Emergency by the California governor has been declared in Santa Barbara County due to these wildfires.  Weather conditions including hot and dry weather accompanied by unusual winds contributed to the rapid spread of the fire.

 

During this year’s growing wildfire season, NFPA has produced wildfire safety tips that can help you take some actions quickly to prepare your home for a wildfire.


The July/August NFPA Journal is out and in its Wildfire column, I explore what wildfire response planners can learn from their structural fire department counterparts – often in the same building – about adapting to the evolving fire threat.

 

Back in May when I was writing this column, large fires in central Chile, Florida, and California had all burned much faster than anticipated, causing major loss across unseasonably dry and overgrown landscapes.

 

Wildfires are burning more acreage than before (in the modern context) and costing much more to control. Simply, wildfires are burning differently than we’ve come to expect, and that point sounded familiar to me.

 

Ongoing research on modern residential structural fire behavior is showing that modern construction materials and methods, as well as home contents, have led to fires that can burn much more aggressively, reach flash-over faster, and pose greater dangers to inhabitants and responders alike.

 

In response, structural firefighters have had to evolve to this change in how the train and respond to fires, the equipment they use to do it, and the resources they deploy to educate and inform the public.

 

In the column, I argue that wildfire agencies and land management organizations should consider how the fire service came to understand the emerging shift in the structural fire threat and how it identified the necessary changes to training, response, and fire education to meet it.  The lessons may come from just across the fire station bay.

 

Photo Credit: NIFC Public Photo Library, pulled 11July17

 

Picture by Faith Berry at 2017 Santa Fe FEMA funded  HIZ training

 

NFPA has opened the registration for the FEMA-funded 2 day (HIZ) Assessing Structure Ignition Potential from Wildfire training in Jacksonville, Florida for September 13-14.  This valuable training is a must have for fire service personnel who works in areas at risk of loss from wildfire.  Wildfires are growing in intensity and frequency and are causing greater loss in areas across the nation like Tennessee, Kansas, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Hawaii and other states and regions people don't always think are at risk from wildfire hazards.

 

If you work as a firefighter, fire prevention officer, fire marshal or in another capacity with any local, county, volunteer, tribal or state fire department apply today for your opportunity to attend this class (so sorry but Federal employees are not eligible).  Training provided in this class will help fire service personnel better understand why homes burn during wildfires and how to share with homeowners what steps they can take that can help them reduce their risk of loss due to a wildfire.

 

Costs covered by the FEMA grant include registration, course materials, travel, per diem for meals and hotel costs.  This is a great opportunity for small and financially challenged fire departments to obtain this training that can help make a difference in the safety of their communities. Apply today for your opportunity to attend.

Picture of poorly maintained property taken by Faith Berry of property in Lakeside, California

In light of this year’s potential and growing number of current wildfires, the New York Times posted an interesting article about the importance of communities taking action to protect themselves before large wildfires occur.  The Times article interviewed Arizona’s State Forester, Jeff Whitney and talked about his perspective on the importance of managing vegetation around homes as one means of wildfire preparedness. 

 

The article also shared the thoughts of two incident commanders at separate, recent Arizona fires; the Goodwin Fire near Prescott and the Frye Fire in southeastern Arizona.   Both shared that they made the hard choices not to protect an observatory and homes because they felt that they would be placing their firefighters in unreasonably dangerous situations because the structures were not prepared properly before the fire.

 

The article also explored the idea that many wildland incident commanders are reexamining how they deploy firefighters during an incident.  Some are making the hard choice not to put firefighters in their command in harm’s way if communities have taken no wildfire hazard preparedness actions. 

 

It shared that the area of Yarnell, where 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew lost their lives, experienced another fire in 2016 and this time wildfire prevention efforts taken made a difference.  After the disastrous loss, the community of Yarnell had received a grant to do a vegetation management project around the community.  The chief said that before the project the brush was so thick that you could not walk through it.  These were the conditions faced by the Granite Mountain Hot Shot crew in 2013.

 

Picture of good home maintenance taken by Faith Berry in Lake Almanor, California

As I read the story, I thought about how much difference some simple maintenance projects completed can make, not just to protect structures but also to help make it safer for wildland firefighters.  As we take a hard look at our homes, have we made them worth taking the risk to protect? Have we raked up leaves and pine needles from around our homes, cleaned out the gutters, trimmed back dead branches and mowed our lawns? We can make it safer for those who put their lives at risk to protect what is important to us.  For tips on how to make our homes safer visit NFPA’s Firewise USA website.

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