With Australia’s devastating wildfires grabbing headlines, it’s a propitious time to educate people—especially elected officials—that while wildfires are inevitable, wildfire disasters need not be.
This is the message highlighted by NFPA President Jim Pauley in a recent piece in the UPenn Regulatory Review, a publication of the University of Pennsylvania’s Program on Regulation. The piece acknowledges that the conditions that have produced the recent destructive wildfires, like poor forest health and climate change, will likely continue. However, while politicians fret about the “new normal,” the piece points out that they have had little appetite for enacting the types of changes that will help keep communities safe. Instead, the impetus to fight the fires remains the norm.
But fighting the fires isn’t enough. Or at least, relying on fire fighting isn’t a sustainable, or effective, solution to the problem of protecting communities in areas prone to wildfires. Years of research by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the U.S. Forest Service, and others, has revealed that it is the embers falling on wood shake roofs, wooden decks, debris-filled gutters, and encroached vegetation that make homes vulnerable to fire during a wildfire event—not the heat from the forest burning nearby. Standards from NFPA and programs like Firewise USA can help communities mitigate those risks, but only if they’re actually followed.
As noted by Mr. Pauley in the piece, there are many towns like Payson, Arizona, high on wildfire risk and home to local leaders that debate stricter code requirements, but who then retreat to making modest changes that do little to lower the overall danger level of the community. Without greater political will to require safer construction (including excluding development from some high risk areas) and to enforce risk reduction practices among existing homeowners, thousands of communities in the U.S. will remain in danger from wildfires.
Few people would entertain the idea of fighting a hurricane or an earthquake. Yet, instead of preparing for wildfires, we fight them. This mentality obscures the reality that people have the most power to protect their homes well before the forest goes up in flames.
As we look into a future with more wildfire on our North American landscape, it would be instructive to remember the past. Throughout the nineteenth century, and into the twentieth, entire cities were destroyed in blazes that began in a single home. But, as we learned more about fire prevention, cities mandated stricter standards, and over time, the threat of urban conflagrations became exceedingly rare. We can apply this lesson to communities in wildfire prone areas, but not without leaders willing to force a change in the direction of fire safety.
For additional, related information, visit the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute webpage where you can download a free fact sheet that provides guidance to policymakers on how to help keep (their) communities safer from wildfire.
Photo: Burned out homes from California's Camp Fire