Skip navigation
All Places > Fire Break > Blog > Author: twelle

Fire Break

13 Posts authored by: twelle Employee

Recently, the Times of San Diego published an article about their Board of Supervisors approving building code upgrades for wildfire protection.  With the rise of extreme wildfires in the last several decades, our nation seems to struggle with using these same types of tools, Codes and Standards, to address the ever increasing life and property losses from wildfire.   In fact, there are numerous examples where the codes were actually relaxed by local governments after significant fires in order to speed up the re-building process and get the tax base back on track.  This inevitably allows us to repeat the disaster.

However, I tripped across a couple of examples where governments or the private sector are taking the “bull by the horns” and saying, “Enough is enough”.

The proposed ordinance in San Diego received a unanimous positive vote by the board and requires several significant improvements that reduce structural ignition potential from wildfire.  

While a cost increase for a 2400 square foot home is mentioned, it is unclear if this is for retrofit or new construction.   Construction cost increases are often a significant barrier to getting code upgrades approved even in light of Headwaters Economics’ report to the contrary for new construction.

The NFPA has a long history of showing that adoption of appropriate codes and standards can decrease fatalities and property loss from fire.  For over a century, we have engaged in reducing those numbers in structure fires, particularly in commercial, assembly, and multi-family type occupancies.  

Thomson Reuters Foundation reports that in Canada, Insurers are driving changes in rebuilding after the 2016 Ft. McMurray fire.  Nearly 25% of the victims took the offer of a cash settlement to re-build in a safer location rather than replace what they had where they were.

Others, used replacement costs to rebuild with more ignition resistant materials and designs leading to a more resilient community emerging from the ashes.

But the current level of loss is a concern to the Insurance industry.  According to Robert Muir-Wood, chief research officer for Risk Management Solutions, “If your house is rebuilt twice in a century, on average, that going to be intolerable for the functioning of insurance.”

As we look to the future, insurance is likely to be a key driver in how recovery from wildfire disasters will look.  The industry has the potential to influence the construction and siting of new developments wildfire country.  But that influence is not without limits.


NFPA is offering its exclusive science based training, "Assessing Structural Ignition Potential from Wildfire" (ASIP) course in four locations throughout the U.S.  The open registration classes are part of NFPA's Professional Development weeks where students can take multiple NFPA class room training courses at one location.  


The ASIP course, is an updated version of the Home Ignition Zone or HIZ course and is a science based curriculum to help practitioners learn how structures ignite and burn from wildfires and then what to do to reduce that potential.  Students also learn structure assessment skills to identify vulnerabilities for ignition and how to communicate both the threats and the solutions to the homeowner.


Starting in July, students can apply to take this course in four locations:        

  • July 19-20, San Francisco, CA
  • September 13-14, Charlotte, NC
  • October 4-5, Denver, CO

  • December 13-14, Anaheim, CA

So don't delay!  Get registered now and improve your knowledge and abilities in reducing wildfire risk in your communities and jurisdictions.


For NFPA members and non- members, register here:


For a discounted government rate for local, State or Federal employees, register here:


And for those of you interested in certification, this course is a key piece in preparing for NFPA's Certified Wildfire Mitigation Specialist  exam.

During the first week of May, 2018, the big island of Hawaii hosted the first Hawaii Wildfire Summit.  The conference was hosted by the Hawaii Wildfire Management Organization, (HWMO), a non-profit dedicated to reducing wildfire risks through local networks and engagement.  They brought together over 140 practitioners, fire management agencies, partners and residents to learn about fire ecology and risk reduction efforts.


But just to make sure the attendees understood some of the unique challenges faced in the islands, they somehow managed to schedule a 6.9 earthquake and some significant volcanic activity from Kilauea.  All kidding aside, the resultant lava flow ended up in resident's backyards destroying 36 homes and forcing the evacuation of over 1700 people.  There have been some wildfires caused by the flow, but have been of lesser consequence compared to the lava and being the rainy season, have not grown to significance.


That was not the only unique thing I observed while in Hawaii.  As we made our first stop of the Fire Ecology tour, members of our group conducted a "Pule", a sort of Hawaiian prayer song that is a "protocol"  of orientation to place and a recognition of all that came before.  It is also a recognition of the importance of the natural resources and statement of our intent that day with relation to those resources.  It was a very grounding experience to the close relationship that those living in Hawaii have with their natural environment.  Maybe that explains the  lack of wide scale panic as lava was slowly flowing through neighborhood streets, but rather an acceptance of a way of life.


This is also shown in the approach HWMO uses in helping communities reduce wildfire risk.  Having conversations with residents to see what is needed rather than telling them what they need is their desired method.  Developing the relationship and then figuring out what to do to reduce risk works well here.  Since their first

Firewise USA ® site, Kohala by the Sea, came on board in 2004, they have now grown to a total of 11 sites on two islands.


Also while I was there, National Wildfire Community Preparedness Day happened.  I was part of a "Colorado Contingent" attending the conference that included Emily Troisi from the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network and Cesar Gellido from "Saws and Slaws", both from Boulder County.  We attended a work day at the Kohala Waterfront community and Cesar broke out the chainsaw and began helping the residents trim trees while they removed and hauled the slash.  I guess you don't have to live there to help be part of the solution.


So my hat is off to Elizabeth Pickett, Pablo Beimler and the rest of the HWMO staff as well as their partners from the State of Hawaii, the National Park Service, the Department of Defense and Hawaii County Fire Department for setting a high bar for their first wildfire summit.  As Hawaii wrestles with economic and natural forces that affect its wildfire situation, there is much to be learned from how they stand together, engage and adapt to wildfire.

Being born and raised in the West, I would never have expected to see the vast amount of rural forested area that I witnessed, of all places, in New Jersey.  But there it was, miles of trees, with developments nestled within it for as far as the eye could see.  This was the Pine Barrens.  And for the last several years, it has been high on the national list of places that can burn, and burn big.


The last time it did was May of 2007.  The Warren Grove Gunnery Range sits within the Pinelands and an Air National Guard F-16 ignited a 14,000 acre wildfire that forced the evacuation of 6,000 people and burned several homes. A 2016 article in Rolling Stone magazine, "Will America's Worst Wildfire Disaster Happen in New Jersey" caught many folks off guard with most of the news being western wildfire concerns.  Yet, this 1.1 million acre tract of trees is home to some 500,000 people and is still growing.  And it can burn big.


The State of New Jersey, and specifically, the New Jersey Forest Fire Service is working diligently to prepare their residents for future fire events.  In March, we got a chance to meet with them on a State visit as part of our work with the Firewise USA™ program. 


The New Jersey Forest Fire Service utilizes a multi-pronged approach that marries up the Firewise USA™ program, The International Association of Fire Chief’s “Ready, Set, Go” program, New Jersey Fire Safety Councils, and the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network into one effort called Sustainable Jersey.  This program allows communities to build points towards achieving various levels of status which assists them in competing for risk reduction grant funding.

Given that New Jersey is heavily served by volunteer fire companies, the “Ready, Set, Go” program was a natural fit, especially since the Firewise USA™ program is the “Ready” part for them. The residents we met are deeply engaged with the state to reduce their risk because Sustainable Jersey helped to define what the various wildfire risk reduction programs can do and build upon the success of each locally.

We attended a meeting with over 75 participants in Barnegat, including the Chief of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service, Greg McLaughlin. The large fires in recent memory are always on the minds of these residents and all had stories to tell about the Warren Grove fire.

So from a place many do not think of having significant wildfire, comes a unique approach to trying to reduce the risk ahead of the next “big one”. I think all of us can learn from the good work going on in New Jersey.

Photo credit: Warren Grove Gunnery Range by Tom Welle

Certified Wildfire Mitigation Specialist logo


Although there are many practitioners working in the field with titles such as Wildland/Urban Interface Specialist, Wildfire Mitigation Specialist, Wildfire Prevention officer, etc., there is no certification that standardizes some body of knowledge, gives professional credibility and validates the specialized talent in this area...until now.


The National Fire Protection Association, (NFPA), has launched a new certification that is the first of its kind nationally.  The Certified Wildfire Mitigation Specialist, (CWMS), launched Feb. 1, 2018 to help give those working in wildfire risk reduction and preparedness national recognition and an initial standard for certification.


This program provides a three year certification utilizing an applicant's background, experience and study in areas such as:

  • wildfire behavior science
  • home ignition science
  • public education practices
  • land use planning
  • hazard mitigation and preparedness 


Once certified, continuing education is required over the three years to maintain certification.  Related training, professional practices such as community/home wildfire risk assessments, teaching pertinent courses or training and writing articles within the scope of the field and more, all count towards re-certification.


Professionals from around the country were given the opportunity to voluntarily serve on the Certification Advisory Group, (CAG), to provide their input to the body of knowledge, overall scope and blueprint of the certification and to write the exam questions.


The certification also has application for professionals working in urban forestry, landscaping and the insurance industry who work in and around Wildland/Urban fire risk areas.


So if you are interested in building your professional resume or promoting your knowledge around wildfire mitigation and preparedness, then check out the CWMS certification.  All the information you will need can be found here.

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)

The Colorado State Forest Service, (CSFS), La Junta District is home to two National Historic sites that are pilots for demonstrating wildfire preparedness for the public.


Bent's Old Fort, a National Park Service Historic Site, was built in 1833 as a place for trade between Indians and trappers and later became a key staging area for the U.S. Army's march on Mexico in 1846.  The Sand Creek Massacre Historic Site represents some of the less positive aspects of our history with native tribes since that event in 1864.  But today, these two places have become points of education on not only history, but also, wildfire preparedness.


In partnership with NFPA, CSFS is one of 5 pilot states for Firewise Education Sites.  These are places where significant wildfire risk reduction activities are taking place, but lacking full time residents, do not qualify for recognition in NFPA's Firewise USA program.  The states asked NFPA to help them come up with a way that these sites could be showcased without the formal recognition.  Each state in the pilot program manages the work in the sites and ensures that they meet the wildfire risk reduction concepts found in the Firewise USA program.


Firewise State Liaison, Courtney Peterson of CSFS led the partnership between the National Park Service, CSFS, and local volunteers to get the wildfire mitigation work completed and education signage and materials developed.  The sites and the materials are designed to demonstrate what individuals can do to make their homes more ignition resistant to wildfires.  For more information see here and here.

Once again, the southeastern U.S. will see above normal wildland fire potential through the Spring months according to Predictive Services of the National Interagency Fire Center.  The coastal areas from Virginia through the Carolinas, Georgia and most of Florida are likely to see above normal activity in March along with eastern New Mexico, western Texas and southern and southeastern Kansas and Colorado.predictive services map march 2017


April indications show the above normal predictions expanding westward on the southeastern seaboard especially in Georgia.  Central New Mexico and some of eastern Alaska are also showing above normal potential.


For May and June, fire potential moderates to normal or below normal for most of the U.S.  Central New Mexico, Florida and southern Georgia remain above normal.


For the complete report go here.


Drought conditions in the Southeast have been significant with only periodic breaks.  Given the fire activity and wildfire behavior that was experienced in this region last fall, especially in Tennessee, these predictions should be a "heads up" to both residents and wildfire Agencies to get mitigation work done, especially around the home ignition zone, well before wildfires start. 


For more information on what you can do to reduce your risk from wildfire, go to or contact your local state forestry agency.

I had previously blogged on the National Predictive Services fire behavior outlook for the Southeastern U.S. and that they could expect higher than normal fire activity due to long term drought and a shift from La Nina to El Nino this year.  You have also heard us say that fire seasons are lasting longer and large fires are not just in the West.  Well, all of those things have come true this fall and according to a Fox News source, an estimated 41.6 million people in parts of 15 Southern states are living within this zone.

The Southeast has experienced record numbers of fires with large acreage totals. The Chimney Tops 2 fire in Tennessee burned more than 17,000 acres, lost over 2,000 structures and cost 14 lives, according to the National Interagency Fire Center, (NIFC).  Most of these fires are human caused with some being determined to be caused by arson.  

NIFC large fire map

In a reverse of the usual fire season mobilization, crews, engines and aircraft from the West have been heading to the Southeast to assist.  While nationally, we are at Preparedness Level 1 (lowest), the Southern Area Coordination Center is at Preparedness level 5 (highest), meaning resources are being deployed nationally to assist and NIFC is managing the region as a national priority.

The majority of the fires are clumped in the Appalachian corridor affecting Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia. Other fires are burning in Virginia, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Arkansas and South Carolina. 

NFPA’s Firewise Communities/USA program has been fulfilling requests from the states affected to provide Firewise materials to assist regional prevention teams in their efforts to help residents reduce their risk from these wildfires.

Currently, Predictive Services does not show a significant improvement in the fire behavior outlook for the Southeast Region until January.

(photo credit: National Interagency Fire Center)

In early July of 2016, the Cold Springs Fire ignited from careless camping and led to eight homes destroyed and the evacuation of nearly 2,000 people near Boulder, Colorado.  Ending at about 528 acres and with two men being charged with fourth-degree arson, the fire tested the good work being done by the Boulder Wildfire Partners.


After the fire, Boulder Wildfire Partners Program Coordinator Jim Webster invited me to take a look at 4 properties that the fire had visited and yet survived.  Three of these sites were particularly interesting and their stories compelling.


My wife Jill, a Wildfire Mitigation Specialist from nearby Douglas County, drove me to Boulder as I was recovering from knee surgery and was barely able to walk much less drive.  She also had an interest in seeing how this fire had impacted residences and what the surviving homes looked like.  We met up with Jim, Kyle McCatty and Chris Rea, all  Boulder County staff, and headed up Boulder Canyon to the fire area.


As we drove through parts of the fire zone, the effect of topography and wind on this fire was obvious.  It hopscotched around, burning intensely in some areas, and not so much in others.  Parts of the landscape showed sticks of severely burned Pine and even Quaking Aspens.  In other areas, Aspens and even some surface vegetation remained.  You could also see areas where the wind had been blocked by the significant topography and how the fire intensity was less.  And then we came to the first house.

Camera 8-16-16 328 - Copy.JPG


I have often said, it is easier to determine why a home burned down in a wildfire than to figure out why it didn't.  There are just so many variables, but these homeowners had done a bunch of things right.  They had a very good non-combustible zone within 5 feet of the structure, they had thinned trees will out beyond 60 feet, which was good, because the intense fire burned within yards of the home.  The had a good roof and fire resistant building materials.  They had some melting and scorching on the most exposed side of the house and some of their double-paned windows cracked, but the fire never entered the interior and the home survived.

Camera 8-16-16 326 - Copy.JPG

Another home we visited belonged to a gentleman named Lester.  Lester had done a tremendous amount of work on the approximately 30 acres he owns.  He had been thinning for years and it paid off.  While he lost a lot of trees, even in the areas he thinned, his home remained, but his neighbor's home was lost, clearly to embers and low intensity surface fire.  "Your view doesn't have to be right in your back yard", Lester said.  "If you live up here, you have to understand what fire can do and take the steps necessary to protect your home".


The last home we visited was Bob's.   He did significant mitigation over ten years on his 30 acres as a way to de-stress from being a lawyer.  The thinning he did all over his property allowed the Aspen groves he had immediately adjacent to most of his home to act as a barrier to fire reaching the structure.  Bob was one of the first people to reach the origin of the fire and helped firefighters find it.  However, the fire escaped control, Bob had to evacuate and unfortunately, at least two of his neighbors lost their homes.


Both Lester and Bob were extremely knowledgeable about wildfire and fire behavior.  Both had predicted how fire would probably approach their properties and planned their mitigation accordingly.  And they both were right, that day.


These are just examples of folks who took what they learned from being in the Boulder Wildfire Partners program and put it into action to decrease their risk from wildfire.  They worked hard, used some creative thinking around fire resistant trees and did the work where it mattered most.  And most importantly, they and their homes survived.


Jim Webster will be talking more about the Boulder Wildfire Partners on the Firewise Ask an Expert Virtual Workshop scheduled to air on Oct. 11, 2016 at 1:p.m. EDT/11:00 a.m. MDT.

The National Interagency Fire Center, (NIFC), has released its latest Predictive Services product giving us an idea on what the seasonal outlook is for wildfire potential. Covering August through November, the report’s findings are somewhat expected until we get into October/November for the Southeastern U.S.

extended_outlook (1).png

August is pretty much as expected with above normal potential for most of California, southern Idaho, Montana, western Wyoming and the Great Basin.  As we move into September, those northern areas will transition back towards normal potential while southern California will remain high and central southern Texas will climb towards above normal.


However, October and November will see almost the entire southeast and much of the eastern seaboard all the way to New Jersey climb to above normal due to increased drought conditions.  Southern California will remain high with
expected Santa Ana wind conditions.  For the full report see here.


Much of this change will be driven by a waning El Nino as we transition towards La Nina conditions into next year.  Gary Wood, Southeast Regional Coordinator for the National Cohesive Wildland Strategy says that drier conditions in fall are not unusual for the Southeast, but are increased as La Nina conditions develop.

For specific predictive information on the southeast, see here.


Most of central and southern Florida will be at normal potential during this time, however, some reports of central Florida having twice the number of brush fires this July and August may counter what the prediction is currently calling for.
(see article here).


So, while most areas of the nation will start to see fire potential decrease, the Southeast may be in for an interesting fall season.

I recently visited the PineRidge Firewise Community located in the Castle
Pines area south of Denver as they celebrated a creative method of hazardous
fuels reduction. South Metro Fire Rescue Authority Community Risk
Reduction Specialist Einar Jensen and Firewise community point of contact Barb Saenger
held a community get together where the stars of the program were, well, uh,


That's right, goats.  After mechanically thinning a common area in a
small canyon below the subdivision about 3 years ago, the community worked with
a rancher from Cheyenne, Wyoming to bring his goats in to deal with re-growth
and noxious weeds.  The goats were all about getting at new Gambel oak and
Canada Thistle growth and seemed quite content with the task.  Goats are especially

effective on noxious weeds that other grazers won't touch while at the same time

aerating the soil with their hooves, and of course, fertilizing as they graze.


PineRidge has been a Firewise Community since 2008 and was a 2016 NFPA
Wildfire Community Preparedness Day campaign awardee and also received a
cash award from South Metro Fire Rescue Authority.  The PineRidge
Homeowners Association
paid for the goats which runs about $1000.00 a day for
300 goats. See the local 9News story here.


So, with the sun shining, children laughing, Fire engines gleaming and goats
munching, another community works towards reducing its wildfire risk.


(photo credit: Thomas Welle NFPA)

Filter Blog

By date: By tag: