Author(s): Michele Steinberg. Published on October 4, 2021.

Closing the Gaps

Why we need a new research agenda that truly reflects the problem of community destruction by wildfire 

We know enough about wildfire safety to declare that we must act on our knowledge through robust policy approaches. But, to paraphrase American sage Maya Angelou, when we know better, we do better.

And when it comes to the impact of wildfire on communities, there’s a lot more we need to know if we hope to do better.

For example, there has been little investigation into cost comparisons, such as the cost to retrofit and mitigate a property versus the cost of damage and recovery. We know that mass destruction of homes and businesses occurs largely from structure-to-structure ignition, but we lack insight into the technical details of how to prevent such conflagrations. NFPA calls for new construction to meet model codes and standards as well as land-use practices, but without standard risk metrics and visual tools such as risk maps, it’s difficult for local authorities to apply and enforce regulation. We need to establish best practices related to emergency notification and mass evacuation in wildfire scenarios, a gap that must be addressed if we are to properly inform and engage people on how to keep themselves and their families safe.

All of these needs were identified in a report that grew out of “Preparing for Disaster: Workshop on Advancing WUI Resilience,” an event held last year that was co-sponsored by NFPA. The pre-pandemic gathering was designed to identify market and research gaps in wildfire resilience—gaps that, until they are closed, threaten to slow our progress toward a safer future. That means further deaths and injuries, as well as large- scale property loss, for communities in wildfire-prone areas.

No one’s suggesting that closing these gaps will be easy, since wildfire’s impact on the built environment and society is a wickedly complex stew of factors, causes, and conditions. But we already have some experience in framing the big questions. Imagine the challenges involved in distilling that complexity to just five key tenets. That’s what NFPA did earlier this year when we solidified the direction for Outthink Wildfire™, a policy initiative to end the destruction of communities by wildfire by 2050. In fact, the five areas of focus that we came up with felt like no-brainers. Decades of research and experience illuminating the key factors driving wildfire disasters gave us enough evidence to focus on what’s needed in America’s wildfire-prone places: upgrading our built environment to resist ignition and limit wildfire spread; doing more to address natural wildfire fuels on public lands; helping local firefighters be safer and more effective in their wildfire operations; educating people on what to do to save their homes and families; and ensuring that current codes and standards, as well as sound land-use practices, are in use and enforced. It has been useful to map the “Preparing for Disaster” report against the Outthink Wildfire tenets—most are squarely focused on addressing the problems of property loss on a mass scale through better building, rebuilding, retrofitting, and public outreach. The more that research can validate best practices and solutions, the easier it will be for NFPA and like-minded organizations to convince policymakers to enact meaningful changes.

We need to embrace a new emphasis on wildfire research. Key to NFPA’s authority and credibility is our ability to back our guidance and standards with the best available information about how to eliminate loss and suffering from fire, electrical, and related hazards. Setting a practical wildfire resilience research agenda that fills these gaps will supplement the vigorous policy work of Outthink Wildfire and will signal to the academic and research communities that significant research is still needed if we hope to enjoy a future free from the loss of homes and communities due to wildfire.

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