Author(s): Michele Steinberg. Published on January 2, 2019.

Why It Matters

Despite high-profile setbacks, preparedness efforts in wildfire-prone areas around the country continue to work

It was 20 years ago that I first heard about a concept called Firewise and a set of conditions referred to as the wildland/urban interface, or “the WUI.”

The moment was a presentation about wildfire risk in the United States, given by NFPA’s Jim Smalley, a pioneer in community wildfire safety. There was a lot I didn’t understand about what Jim said, though I’d spent the previous decade working in floodplain management, earning a degree in urban planning, and obsessing about the American penchant to build whatever we want, wherever we want, without taking into account the natural phenomena of floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Jim’s presentation included a census map depicting massive population growth in wildfire-prone counties in the U.S., and a seed that would grow and bear fruit was firmly planted within my brain and heart. Just like floods and earthquakes, wildfires follow a natural and predictable pattern of return, and Americans had expanded development right into harm’s way.

Two decades later, the changing conditions on our landscapes and our continued growth into formerly wild or agricultural lands have brought about the worst scenarios that all of us in the safety arena can imagine. From 14 deaths in a single fire in Gatlinburg, Tennessee in 2016, to 44 deaths in California in 2017, and now a death toll approaching 100 in the Camp Fire in California in 2018, the situation has become a crisis.

Against that backdrop, our successes addressing the wildfire problem over the past 20 years can feel stale and meaningless. But it is important to remember that the work that NFPA and its partners started in 1998 has had a significant positive impact on the wildfire problem for thousands of residents across the country, and we must keep up the fight.

NFPA’s wildfire safety programming, including Firewise, relies heavily on the concept of the “home ignition zone.” The term was coined by wildfire scientist Jack Cohen, who found that the chances of a home burning in a wildfire depend on ignition sources found within 100 feet of the structure. A home’s chances of surviving increase dramatically when noncombustible building materials are used and the ignition zone is kept clear of things that can burn. NFPA and its partners have taught this concept in workshops across the country, and in 2002 launched the Firewise USA® recognition program, which has been embraced by residents and local officials nationwide. From 12 initial pilot sites, Firewise USA now engages residents in more than 1,600 sites across 42 states in improving the chances of their homes and neighborhoods for surviving wildfire. Other countries are adapting and using the Firewise framework.

Despite the recent wildfire devastation in California, we have seen preparedness and mitigation win again and again at many Firewise sites, saving homes and reducing fire’s impacts. It’s a testament to what can happen when people take the risk seriously and prepare for the inevitable. In the next several years, NFPA will continue to learn and work to replicate the successes we have seen in so many places.

We know that we still have work to do, perhaps now more than ever. At a recent 20-year celebration of a national resilience organization, FLASH (Federal Alliance for Safe Homes), I found inspiration in the words of director Leslie Chapman-Henderson: “It’s always going to be hard, and it’s always going to matter. And that’s why we’re not allowed to give up.” She was talking about a problem that had long vexed her field, but she may as well have been speaking about our global wildfire safety challenges.

I look forward to the coming months and years with a renewed emphasis on saving lives and property, which are always going to matter.

MICHELE STEINBERG is director of the wildfire division at NFPA. Top Illustration: Michael Hoeweler