Author(s): Michele Steinberg. Published on May 1, 2023.

Inflection Point

Two years after the founding of an ambitious national wildfire policy initiative, NFPA's wildfire chief sees many encouraging signs. But progress remains slow, and the process is complex.


Last September, I traveled to Salt Lake City for the first meeting of the presidential Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission. I was both excited and apprehensive as to what I might encounter at the meeting—it was a new group that included a lot of people I didn’t know, and I wasn’t sure what to expect.

On paper, the new commission held enormous promise. Created in December 2021 by the US Departments of Agriculture, the Interior, and Homeland Security (through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA) as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the commission’s primary task, according to its online description, was to form “federal policy recommendations and strategies on ways to better prevent, manage, suppress, and recover from wildfires.” The infrastructure law required the 50-member commission to represent federal agencies, the private sector, and state, local, and tribal governments; the group’s initial recommendations would be submitted as part of required reports to Congress within a year of our first meeting. No wonder I’d arrived in Salt Lake City with a sense that the clock was already ticking.

Our meetings took place at the Utah State Capitol, and on that first morning I walked up to Capitol Hill with Kelly Martin, a fellow commission member. Kelly and I were among the 36 nonfederal members who had been appointed to the commission, from an applicant pool of more than 500. Kelly is a legend in the wildland firefighting world, with a long career in federal service and a passion to support the needs of the workforce through her nonprofit, Grassroots Wildland Firefighters. My background and skills are quite different, involving outreach and education to inhabitants of wildfire-prone areas and work with local and state governments through NFPA’s Firewise USA® program. Since 2021, I had been involved in the wildfire policy arena with the launch of NFPA’s Outthink Wildfire™ initiative. But Kelly and I had at least one thing in common, which was a deep commitment to change and reform in the wildfire space. We both wondered how this first meeting of the commission would go. Would we find people who shared our commitment to change?
As commission members took their seats, I was as delighted as I was nervous about the fact that I only knew about a third of the people in the room. The world of wildfire is notoriously small—I joke that this is why I only say nice things about other people in the industry—and I was encouraged to see so many new faces. The room was diverse in terms of gender, age, and race. As I discovered, several commission members came from organizations adjacent to wildfire—there were representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, and the public utility Denver Water. As the intense, expertly facilitated meeting began, it became clear that these folks were not sitting there to add a line to their resumes. Whether their mission, like mine, was to end wildfire disasters, or whether it focused on saving lives, protecting public health, or restoring the natural and cultural functions of wildfire to landscapes, the people who made up this unprecedented federal policy effort were passionate and dedicated.

After the Tubbs Fire destroyed much of the Coffey Park neighborhood in Santa Rosa, California, in 2017, the city relaxed building codes to encourage a faster rebuild. Since then, California is one of two states that has passed statewide standards to ensure that new structures are built with wildfire-resistive elements. GETTY

My experience with wildfire’s impact on the built environment helped me emphasize the key elements of NFPA’s Outthink Wildfire policy initiative strategy that I believe must be addressed if our nation is to solve the complex problem of wildfire. With some 45 million homes exposed to wildfire in the US—and with only two states, California and Utah, that include enforced statewide standards for building new structures with wildfire-resistive elements—the challenge of protecting residential communities from conflagration is enormous. NFPA’s Outthink Wildfire initiative, a call to end the destruction of communities by wildfire by 2050, is based on two realities. First, wildfire is a part of the global environment, and it is here to stay. Second, with so many vulnerable properties and neighborhoods exposed to wildfire, there is no way that firefighters can save every home once an ignition has occurred. Policy across all levels of government must address the current risk posed to existing homes by finding ways to speedily upgrade property safety at scale, and decrease future risk by requiring all new construction to meet wildfire-resistant building and design standards, with new developments subject to land use rules that incorporate wildfire safety. These two tenets—safeguarding existing properties and building safer new ones—are at the heart of NFPA’s mission to eliminate property loss, deaths, and injuries from fire and related hazards.
Yet government entities—federal, state, and local—struggle with the notion that this means telling people what to do on their private property. As one of only two commission representatives specifically selected for expertise in property loss reduction, I have to amplify my voice on this issue throughout the meetings and workgroups. Many members are unfamiliar with the science behind home ignition and wildfire risk reduction. Only a few have experience in working at the local level with codes and standards or in enforcement of regulations. While there is broad agreement that we must somehow fix the community destruction problem, it’s much more challenging to figure out the specifics.
However, it’s clear that the third tenet of Outthink Wildfire—ensuring that local firefighters have the training and personal protective equipment they need to be safe and effective in response to wildfire that threatens homes—resonates across the commission. Experienced fire service folks in the room fully understood how a prepared community or parcel not only reduces dollar losses and homeowner misery, but helps make first responders safer and more successful in their work. It’s my opinion that until and unless our communities become prepared to live with wildfire—what’s known as being fire-adapted—our fire service will never be successful in saving property, and our land managers will never be able to properly manage forests and rangelands. I also believe that the massive property losses—the ones that can add up to tens of billions of dollars in a single incident, year after year—are the major motivators for members of Congress to finally push for substantive change. The commission’s recommendations must and will overlap, since we can’t solve a single piece of this complex problem without addressing it comprehensively.

‘Sudden and significant interest’
NFPA’s launch of Outthink Wildfire at the beginning of 2021 could not have been timelier. California, Colorado, and Oregon were emerging from some of the worst wildfire disasters in their history, and bills and proposals to address the wildfire problem had begun piling up in state legislatures.
As we promoted Outthink, we scrambled to keep up with the sudden and significant interest in an array of wildfire-related issues. California’s insurance commissioner held hearings about wildfire risk and initiated moratoriums on insurance cancellations for companies doing business in the state. Oregon’s fire and building code officials contemplated whether and how to allow rebuilding in the wake of a series of destructive wildfires. Colorado was reeling from a number of damaging events, including the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires. Then, in the final days of 2021, the Marshall Fire roared across Colorado’s Boulder County, savaging an area that was on nobody’s radar for wildfire-caused mass destruction. The fire destroyed nearly 1,100 homes over the course of two days and underscored the realities that wildfire could strike almost anywhere at any time, facts that further emphasized the need for new policy approaches to wildfire and for a new level of urgency with which to pursue those policies.

Several of the presentations I made in 2021 and 2022 were to college students. Over the previous several years, I had built a modest reputation for providing useful information during mildly entertaining live and virtual presentations to classrooms led by friends who taught at MIT, the University of North Carolina, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and elsewhere. For years, I had been demonstrating the policy context at the federal level—including the old “10 a.m.” fire suppression policy, the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003, and the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy born out of the FLAME Act of 2009—and pointing out the critically important elements that were missing. Across the country, local land use planning rarely accounts for wildfire risk. Only two states and a handful of municipalities use and enforce some kind of wildfire safety standard for new construction. There are almost no incentives or preventive measures to help limit construction in high-hazard areas. I did what I could to impress upon the students the folly and shortsightedness of these gaps and absences, and to coax them to share my indignation and passion for change.

The Marshall Fire destroyed nearly 1,100 homes in Boulder County, Colorado, in the closing days of 2021. According to the author, the event prompted a newfound urgency among elected officials in the state, who seem to realize that more destruction is inevitable unless something changes. GETTY

With the advent of Outthink Wildfire, though, my slide deck expanded from simply pointing out the gaps to how NFPA and like-minded organizations intended to fill those gaps. With Outthink Wildfire, NFPA had now declared that such measures must take place to help make existing homes safer and to ensure that new construction was designed and built with wildfire in mind. Many students in the classes I spoke to had experienced wildfire in their home communities, and regardless of their field of study they were interested in learning more. Planning, engineering, and architecture students wanted to know technical details about how to make homes ignition resistant. Some asked if it was possible to design high-density subdivisions in wildfire-exposed areas that were truly safe; my response was simply that I didn’t know, since there are nearly no examples to point to. Many were surprised to learn how lightly modern standards and planning tools had been applied across wildfire-prone regions. Professors in the classes I spoke to told me how much students appreciated the food for thought that I provided, and even how energized some of them were about changing future outcomes, especially around applying design and construction regulations.
But saying it and doing it are two different things, as we experienced following the Marshall Fire. Bob Sullivan, NFPA’s Southwest regional director, had worked throughout 2021 to initiate policy conversations and to build trust with state agencies in Colorado, which now faced a major crisis. At the start of 2022, Bob was invited to be part of the Colorado Fire Commission and its Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) subcommittee to offer NFPA’s perspective on the value of statewide regulations and guidelines governing construction and land use in areas prone to wildfires. I provided testimony to the subcommittee on the value of statewide standards to address the risk that is nearly uniform across the state, standards that can also help level the playing field for builders and developers and increase safety equitably for all parts of Colorado. 

Understanding that Colorado is a home-rule state where municipal (town/city/county) governments have significant influence and are often averse to state control, I also pointed out that Colorado residents have been actively engaged in Firewise USA, our voluntary wildfire mitigation program, for many years. With the third-largest number of participants in any state in the country, representing more than 100,000 residents, Colorado can boast a significant number of true believers, people who understand the value of wildfire risk reduction and who are willing to act accordingly. I noted findings of NFPA’s public surveys that indicate that most Americans expect safety in the built environment, and that most expect the homes they purchase to be designed to keep them safe. My hope was to encourage elected officials to draw on these sentiments as part of their rationale for safety standards, and to bolster their defense against the utterly predictable noise from those with vested interests in the status quo who would soon be shouting about how “expensive” any new code or standard was going to be.
While state and local officials in Colorado had been working for years toward slowly improving community wildfire resilience, there had been hesitancy to challenge local control with state-level solutions to the problem. Immediately following the Marshall Fire, however, there was new urgency from the governor’s office and across the state to act swiftly to try to ensure this kind of disaster wouldn’t be repeated. The tone in the subcommittee meetings seemed to me to reflect a sober recognition, and perhaps resignation, that future years would continue to break records for “worst fire” unless something changed. In the first meeting I attended, representatives who we feared might remain entrenched in a hard stance of local control acknowledged that the wildfire risk existed statewide and therefore warranted a statewide approach.
Throughout 2022, though, as members of the state’s subcommittee met frequently to discuss the path forward as directed by their governor, the talks started to sound more like negotiations. Participants voiced concerns about how state rules would be enforced and how and whether local governments would receive technical assistance. At a few points, some people suggested rules so watered down that they might as well not even bother. But the process prevailed, and as of this writing a state senate bill, SB23-166, has cleared its first hurdle. If passed, the bill would create a statewide “Wildfire Resiliency Code Board” that would be administered by the state’s fire agency and would adopt a statewide code by 2025. Mirroring the diverse representation on the subcommittee meetings, the proposed board would have 24 members, only three of whom would be nonvoting, from an array of entities public and private, statewide and local. While safety advocates cannot yet declare victory, I am watching the process with hope, not only for solutions in Colorado, but that it could serve as a model for other states around the country.

Real and radical change
Legislative activity in 2021 and 2022 was not limited to states suffering major wildfire losses. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, created the Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission and was perhaps the most significant piece of legislation affecting wildfire policy and funding in the last century. The act also directed the U.S. Forest Service to create a funding program called the Community Wildfire Defense Grant. Federal funding began to flow to states, municipalities, tribal organizations, and nonprofit organizations, aimed at implementing actions identified in up-to-date local community wildfire protection plans, or to update or create such plans where they were outdated or absent.
This flow of funding created excitement in the media but also frustration among wildfire safety practitioners. Just how much frustration became clear to me during the Outthink Wildfire Summit organized and hosted by NFPA last May in California. Representatives from 40 organizations spent two days focusing on policy approaches to address the huge number of existing homes on wildfire-prone landscapes across the country. The group broke into smaller segments to tackle different elements of the issue, and I was able to talk about funding and finances with representatives from state government, academia, local government, and others. I was surprised to discover that California, with all its financial and technical resources, was struggling to get funding applied to projects that would help mitigate risks to private property. The reasons included a mismatch of regulations, inconsistent review processes across the regional offices of the federal funding agency, conflicts with state environmental rules, and more. Federal programs designed to rebuild county roads and state-run dams turned out to have rules such as cost-benefit analysis requirements that can stymie efforts to assist individuals with home safety upgrades. A lack of technical assistance to support small and rural communities was also an important gap described by participants. Even as new federal funding was becoming available from the Community Wildfire Defense Grant, it was clear that bureaucratic limitations on the use of the funds would similarly hinder attempts to protect vulnerable homes via structural retrofits. The red tape associated with this grant involved triggering a tax burden, since the Internal Revenue Service flags funds going to individuals to make home improvements as income. There are ways around this kind of problem, but the very short timeframe written into the statute hamstrung the Forest Service, at least in the first round of funding availability. 

Despite such snags, the recurring themes I’ve observed over the past two years in the wildfire policy space are encouraging. There is a lot of agreement on what the problems are, as well as the solutions to those problems—more than I had expected. I have heard over and over from wildfire safety advocates and wildfire management practitioners how much they yearn for real and radical change. At the same time, though, there are very real obstacles to progress. There is clearly no purpose-fit funding stream that would enable more worthy projects to obtain funding and implement wildfire risk reduction at scale. It’s a remote possibility that Congress would create a new agency to administer such funding; the more likely path will be to direct agencies to streamline the complex processes that have effectively prevented many wildfire mitigation projects from winning grants. Holding state and local governments accountable for their role in wildfire disaster prevention is challenging in part due to states that maintain a home-rule prerogative, as well as the dire lack of technical capacity among small and rural communities across the country. Among my government colleagues, especially at the state level, there is cause for concern that new statewide regulations will meet with enough political resistance to render them meaningless. 

The surge of destructive wildfires over the last decade has stretched local fire departments thin. One tenet of Outthink Wildfire is ensuring that local firefighters have the training and equipment they need to meet the wildfire threat. GETTY

It might sound weird, but those moments that make us all feel worried and uncomfortable are the moments when things become most interesting—and we’re in one of those moments right now when it comes to national wildland fire policy. Looking back on a 20-year career of promoting wildfire safety to the uninterested sometimes makes me feel like I’ve been shouting into the void for an awfully long time. On a recent commission workgroup videoconference, we were refining recommendations about what Congress should do to help communities be safer. Some of these recommendations called for providing funding directly to people to upgrade their private property. As I watched a few people squirm on camera at that suggestion, I realized we were at an inflection point—nothing raises the level of discomfort in a room like suggesting that something might be achieved by giving people taxpayer dollars to do it. I took the opportunity to remind everyone that many taxpayer dollars have already been spent, and will continue to be spent, attempting to suppress wildfires that destroy communities, and that even more federal funding is flowing into attempts to help people recover from disaster after wildfires. Wouldn’t it be better, I asked, and maybe even cheaper, to give people the funds up front to do the mitigation work necessary to prevent wildfire disasters? 

Whether these particular recommendations make it to Congress in September remains to be seen. As of April, there were still a half-dozen topical workgroups in the process of developing recommendations, with weighty discussions pending on wildfire workforce and appropriations. Public comment remains open on several topics, with hundreds of comments already in review on wildfire workforce issues. The commission meets in person for the last time in June but will continue its work through the recommendation deadline in September via virtual meetings, writing, rewriting, and consulting additional subject matter experts. In the meantime, NFPA is sponsoring a Fire Protection Research Foundation survey to gauge public opinion on wildfire risk reduction guidelines and regulations in California and Oregon. Results should help us develop messages that resonate with residents and local officials, and perhaps guide state agencies on ways to avoid pitfalls and garner support as they craft new laws intended to protect private property and public lands. NFPA is also engaged in a parallel effort to raise awareness of national fire safety challenges that include firefighter safety in wildfire disasters scenarios. Along with the US Fire Administration, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and others, NFPA is developing calls to action at the highest levels of government to address the most pressing challenges faced by the public and the fire service. 

In the meantime, I spend most of my workdays immersed in the difficult discussions around this country’s wildfire problem, whether they’re related to commission work, Outthink Wildfire efforts, or both. We are all working to keep the mission in mind, recognizing these are the policy equivalents of a 1960s moonshot. To paraphrase what President Kennedy said about the extraordinary mission to get an American to the moon, we choose to tackle the wildfire disaster problem not because it is easy, but because it is hard. I am encouraged to keep at this hard work because I see and hear how committed my colleagues are. We have unprecedented opportunities right now to make a difference together. 

What a wonderful start to our 30-year goal of ending wildfire disasters. 

Michele Steinberg is the Wildfire Division Director at NFPA and would like to solve the wildfire disaster problem  Top image: GETTY