A diverse workshop tackles a wicked wildfire problem

Blog Post created by luciandeaton Employee on Apr 16, 2020

The “WUI disaster problem is truly a "wicked problem", with impacts and solutions that do not fit neatly into one or two disciplines”, said Michele Steinberg, Director of NFPA’s Wildfire Division, about an early March workshop in San Francisco, CA.  The 2-Day workshop brought together a very diverse group of land use planners, scientists & researchers, policy makers, technology developers, engineers, utilities, and educators for the first time to collaboratively advance wildland-urban-interface (WUI) resilience.  The workshop was hosted by the NFPA Research Foundation and the NFPA Wildfire Division, along with the University of California, BerkeleyArup, and Reax Engineering to identify actions to resolve gaps in research and the marketplace and outline the steps to execute sustainable solutions.


Michael J. Gollner, Ph.D., Assistant Professor and Deb Faculty Fellow in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, chaired the workshop and shared with me his thoughts on the uniqueness of the event.  He said, “So often, we discuss WUI challenges within our own community.  This was a rare chance to bring together so many diverse communities and collectively develop solutions that are actionable.  Beyond the connections between wildfire and resilience we’ve made, I think that some of these ideas deliberated in the workshop will have real traction in the near future.”  He went onto say that, “These plans may also be useful in setting an agenda for future work and development.”


Michele Steinberg also saw value in this diverse exchange.  Speaking about the various disciplines present, she shared that, “There is no single - nor simple - solution that brings us to a future where wildfires occur, but disasters do not.  Because the problem is complex and multi-varied, the set of topics we wrangled with over two days were broad ranging.”


In her remarks to the workshop, Steinberg spoke about the power of community engagement and individual action to make a difference in home and community ignition potential. She said:


“Long-term solutions must include acknowledgment of what I've come to call "the 98% problem." That is, we cannot hope to end WUI disasters without addressing the enormous risk to structures already built into our fire-prone landscapes. Since, on average, only 2% of building stock is created in the US each year, we are dealing with the 98% of already sited, designed and built homes, businesses and infrastructure that are vulnerable to ignition from wildfire. This huge inventory of property at risk is almost all privately owned, yet it exists in a cultural context where protection of structures is seen not as the job of the private property owner, but as the job of government - namely, firefighters. Yet, we know from experience that attempting to prevent WUI disasters by waiting for the fire to start and grow, and then responding with fire suppression while it is igniting dozens or hundreds of homes simultaneously, is not the solution. By the time a fire starts, it's too late to prevent disaster using traditional response, without any prior risk reduction by property owners.

Community engagement works to teach people about wildfire, about how homes ignite, and about the things they can do to reduce the risk of home ignition and community-wide disaster. It begins to change the cultural context to one where people realize that if they own the home, they also own the home protection. Individuals must reduce risk at their own property, but also engage with neighbors to do likewise. Just as we're learning in the age of COVID-19, our individual behavior will greatly affect others - and neighbors' behavior will affect our own risk.”

The NFPA Research Foundation released a project summary of the workshop and plans to share the full workshop proceedings later this summer (2020).


Photo Credit: Lucian Deaton

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