Author(s): James Pauley. Published on November 1, 2020.

Wildfire Reckoning


In my six years at NFPA, wildfire has been an area that has continually concerned me.

NFPA has been in the wildfire arena for more than two decades, and over that time we’ve seen the problem continue to worsen. We have some great programs, including Firewise USA® and our work with the home ignition zone, but clearly those efforts are not enough.

Frankly, the policymakers often can’t get out of their own way long enough to really consider what needs to happen. When governors refer to wildfires as “climate fires,” I believe they do a disservice to addressing real change that could impact the problem. We may very well be going through a period of warmer and dryer conditions, but attempting to address the impacts of wildfire through a discussion focused solely on climate change is a waste of time. Doing so only means that millions of additional acres will burn before anything substantial shifts in our approach to managing this problem.

We must recognize two facts if we hope to mitigate the devastating effects of wildfires. The first is that wildfires are going to happen, whether they’re caused by nature, people, or the infrastructure of human society. The second is that fire departments will not always be staffed or equipped to save property located in the path of a wildfire.

Faced with more wildfires that are bigger and increasingly severe, though, we refuse to change our behavior. Communities allow new homes to be built in burned-out areas exactly as they were before they were lost to a wildfire. We continue to see resistance to appropriate forest management practices critical to controlling fuel loads. When we consider wildfire using the principles of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem™, it’s clear that our approach is profoundly flawed. As a result, tragedies still occur.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Homes can be built to better withstand wildfires if we apply the research and standards that inform how and where they are built. But the same special interests that have pushed back on smoke alarms, arc fault circuit interrupters, and home fire sprinklers are now pushing back against better building practices in the wildland/urban interface.

As we enter 2021, you will hear more from NFPA about attacking the wildfire problem comprehensively, including key policy changes that need to be made at the state and local levels. Without driving real change in how and where we build and in how we manage fire-prone lands, we will only see the problem get worse. 

Jim Pauley is president and CEO of NFPA