Author(s): Michele Steinberg. Published on September 1, 2019.

Weak Links

Decades of neglecting key aspects of the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem have resulted in devastating wildfires. Can we change? 


As my colleagues and I travel the world, we often present the concept of NFPA’s Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem and how it applies to the wildfire problem. As with other fire and safety issues, addressing wildfire requires all eight ecosystem components working in unison—a single weak link opens the whole system to catastrophic failure. And yet, as evidenced by the deadly wildfire disasters we see around the globe, weak links and major gaps are everywhere. Large portions of the wildfire ecosystem wheel are being ignored.

Wildfire safety advocates routinely emphasize the importance of an informed public, and the role of preparedness and fire response, two important ecosystem elements. Of course, we need every individual to be informed and active in protecting their home and family from wildfire. We’ll always need fire response. But what about the rest? What is the responsibility of government in both creating and solving the problem? Why do our well-researched, scientifically supported codes and standards sit on shelves? Why does our society choose to pour money into disaster relief instead of investing in safety? And where is the skilled workforce that can implement the safety measures that need to take place?

The failure of local governments to take wildfire risks into account when making critical decisions about new development and redevelopment is well documented. Yet it’s nearly unheard of to have local officials held accountable for irresponsible decisions that allow dangerous development without restrictions on building materials, siting, and arrangement, and without a serious program of enforcement to ensure ignition resistance of buildings and landscapes. Even in the aftermath of recent tragedies, local officials are allowing structures to be rebuilt without benefit of the proven codes and standards that have been established over decades of research and experience.

For too long, wildfire disasters have been characterized as a fire problem instead of a social problem. Rather than the singular focus on fire response—often too little and too late to save lives and property—society needs to invest in safety in the design and construction of both our homes and our physical infrastructure to resist wildfire ignition and to make it safe for people to shelter or evacuate when fire inevitably arrives. This involves not only the use and enforcement of building codes, but also risk-based insurance that nudges builders, local officials, and prospective home buyers to consider wildfire threats and to invest in risk reduction. To appropriately invest in safety, the price tag needs to be clearly marked at the beginning of the transaction. Spending the time and money to develop safely is a wiser investment than waiting for disaster to strike and finding that inadequate coverage and limited government aid results in residents unable to rebuild their lives.

Even with the best future development, there are already millions of existing structures worldwide waiting to ignite. We desperately need a skilled workforce that can not only counsel property owners but also make the physical changes needed to improve the ignition resistance of homes and businesses. We need incentives, support, training, and credentials in place to make these changes possible at any time, not only after a disaster.

We see glimmers that some are beginning to understand the interconnected nature of our fire and life safety ecosystem. In Portugal, the mayors of three municipalities where 66 people died during a 2017 wildfire will be among 10 defendants to stand trial for their part in allowing an event where “practically all of the links of the chain failed,” as one news outlet put it. Today, it is much too easy for residents, local governments, and business interests to ignore the very real risks of wildfires that can wipe communities off the map. Pressure on all of the responsible parties to do their parts—not just residents and firefighters—might just change future outcomes. 

Michele Steinberg is director of the wildfire division at NFPA. Illustration: Michael Hoeweler