TELL US WHAT YOU THINK Email your letters to, or mail them to Editor, NFPA Journal, 1 Batterymarch Park, Quincy, Massachusetts, 02169. Please include your title, company or organization affiliation, and where you're based. NFPA Journal reserves the right to edit letters and comments for content and length.

Published on March 1, 2018.


Readers respond: Are we destined to build, burn, and repeat?

To the editor:
The cover story on wildfire and residential development [“Build. Burn. Repeat?”] by Jesse Roman in your January/February issue is powerful, and also raises so many frustrations. Among the points it highlights is an alarming trend in structural loss in the U.S.

“Even as science’s knowledge of wildfires and the causes of home ignition grows, the number of homes destroyed by wildfire each year is on the rise,” Roman writes. “There is no comprehensive method for tracking how many homes are lost each year in the U.S., but the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) does track loss numbers for the nation’s largest wildfire incidents. Tallying those losses offers a glimpse of a troubling trend. From 1985 to 2000, NIFC data shows that an annual average of 400 residences were destroyed in large wildfires. From 2001 to 2011, the number jumped to 1,354, and during the five years from 2012 to 2016, an annual average of 3,456 residences were destroyed by wildfire. With more than 6,000 homes destroyed last October in California alone, 2017 will again boost the annual averages.”

As an overseas observer here in the UK, and as an occasional wildland firefighter in the U.S., the title of the article, “Build. Burn. Repeat?,” is a phrase that I often mull over. It seems that the solution is so simple when the problem is broken down to just three words, but of course the problem is not that simple. The societal needs and desires will add many nuances that will never be resolved to everybody's satisfaction.

Climate change is forcing the UK to consider how we will need to better protect our homes and communities in the near future. We have an advantage in that most of our homes are built using non-combustible materials—often brick or stone with slate or tile roofs—but there is little or no protection from ember intrusion. We are also fortunate in that we have not had wildfires destroying structures to date. However, considering what happened in other parts of Europe in 2017, when fires destroyed many structures across a number of countries, it would seem that it is only a matter of time. Complacency is not helpful, and we need to learn from others, such as California, and prepare now for what we expect to be our new future. This year, Dorset County Council has appointed the first Firewise® advisor in the UK to help residents learn how to keep their homes and property safe from wildfire. It's still the early days, but I'm hopeful that this will be the start of an important process for us.

We share your pain, but want to learn from your experiences, both good and bad.





Dorchester, UK

To the editor:
I just finished reading your article “Build. Burn. Repeat?” [January/February] and really appreciated many of the points you brought out about wildfire and residential development. Having been born and raised in Santa Rosa, California, I can recall the Hanly Fire in September, 1964, when I was on the roof of my then-girlfriend’s parents’ home with a garden hose, dousing the embers as they blew in from the fire-front. I had no idea then that 53 years later I would be retired after 35 years in the fire service, watching on television the same sort of fire evolution in the same areas of Santa Rosa, only with much more devastating results.

During my career I have been actively engaged in codes and standards, training, and education. I am currently involved as a panel member in the Fire Protection Research Foundation’s California Residential Fire Sprinkler Economic Assessment, and have been tracking the Ghost Ship Fire, which occurred in Oakland in December, 2016, as a member of the California Senate Governance and Finance Committee Ghost Ship Fire Work Group.

Specific to your article, I have been researching fire trends in California post-“America Burning,” the seminal 1973 report that sounded the alarm on the U.S. fire problem. History has shown that wildland fires tend to repeat themselves in the same general areas every 20, 30, or 40 years in a cycle of construction, destruction, and reconstruction, a pattern supported by dozens of examples.

In light of this and other critical fire issues, I feel that NFPA, along with the U.S. Fire Administration, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the International Code Council, and others, might want to collectively pursue an effort to reconvene a new commission and to prepare a new report, “America Is Still Burning.” Companion materials could be developed to help educate the fire service and building officials on the fire problems of the 21st century, including the critical problem of wildfire, and the roles they must play on the enforcement of building and fire regulations for new and existing construction with a focus on use and occupancy so that the public is served by the services these officials are delegated to adopt and enforce. There must be a focus on solving the fire problem that continues to kill, injure, and cripple so many Americans.



Sacramento, California

To the editor:
I just finished reading the article “Build. Burn. Repeat?” in the January/February issue of NFPA Journal, about NFPA’s efforts to combat losses caused by wildfires. Very interesting article—I never realized it was possible for houses to be resistant to wildfires through construction materials and continuous maintenance.

Embers are sprayed at a test home at the IBHS testing facility

Ember Chamber Evaluating the impact of windblown embers on a structure at the IBHS Testing facility. Photograph: Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety

I had a couple of questions after reading the article: Along with partnering with local municipalities to adjust their building codes and permitting processes, has NFPA also partnered with home insurance providers? I imagine homeowners’ insurance in fire-prone areas is quite high due to risk, and I’m wondering if insurance providers do anything to incentivize homeowners to make appropriate upgrades, maintain landscaping, etc.?

Thanks again for the insightful article!




Chicago, Illinois

Michele Steinberg, head of NFPA's Wildfire Division, and Lucian Deaton, project manager in the Wildfire Division, respond:

You can improve the resiliency of a home to wildfire through construction materials and maintenance, and it's not an expensive endeavor.

The risk to structures is not a wall of flames, as is often assumed, but instead the burning embers that blow from a wildfire and land on vulnerable places on and around homes. To advance this message, insurance providers and others engaged in reducing loss of life and property to wildfire have worked with NFPA and the Firewise USA™ Recognition Program.

USAA has led the insurance industry in identifying ways to incentivize and recognize resident actions because they have seen a correlation between participation in the Firewise USA program—which involves neighbor-to-neighbor, volunteer-based preparedness—and smaller property-loss claims from wildfire. USAA members with homeowner policies currently living in recognized Firewise USA sites in seven states are eligible for insurance discounts.

Policy premium reductions are not the only way insurers are promoting the importance of wildfire preparedness. This year marks the fifth anniversary of generous funding support from State Farm Insurance for the National Wildfire Community Preparedness Day. Held this year on May 5, residents from across the United States are encouraged to submit proposals for $500 grants that can be put toward their local risk-reduction activities.

Educating residents on insurance is just as important as encouraging proactive work around their homes. Industry groups like the Insurance Information Institute, Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, and the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association help teach residents about the role of insurance and the risk of being under-insured when faced with loss. NFPA and the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) have also developed a five-part wildfire research fact sheet featuring the wildfire research conducted at the IBHS research facility to create more resilient homes and communities.

There is a common perception that insurers either aren't doing enough to encourage preparedness or are walking away from risks when they get too expensive. As coverage in NFPA Journal has illustrated, however, there is a variety of ways residents can work with insurance providers to make constructive changes to their homes and neighborhoods that result in fewer potential losses from wildfire.

Goncalo Delgado/Global Images/SIPA USA/Newscom