Outthink Wildfire™ is a comprehensive strategy from the National Fire Protection Association that lays out five key policy changes that need to be made at the federal, state and local levels in the US to end wildfire destruction over the next 30 years. In the June edition, Part One examined public outreach and land management considerations. Here, development and fire service needs are explored to make communities safer from wildfire anywhere.
All homes and businesses in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) must be required to be more resistant to ignition from wildfire embers and flames. While influencing the siting and materials used in new construction are important steps in reducing the nation’s wildfire risk, much of that risk exists in structures that have already been built. To stem the tide of loss from wildfires, millions of homes and other structures must be retrofitted to reduce the risk of ignition, a transformation that can be realized through continued research and development, public education, financial incentives and robust support from all levels of government.
Research has consistently shown the role embers play in igniting structures in the WUI. It has also shown that there is an increased survival rate of homes constructed from fire-resistant materials on property that has been mitigated to remove sources of fuel for a fire. Continued research is needed in several areas, including the development of performance-based product test standards that better reflect how materials perform when exposed to exterior flame exposure, radiant heat and the impact of embers from a wildfire. Developing these referenced standards will help guide architects, builders and homeowners to easily source products and materials that will perform as intended during wildfires. Additional research is also needed to support the development and validation of retrofit methods, particularly those that are most cost effective.
Standards developers also have an important role to play. Building standards now exist to improve wildfire safety for new construction – including NFPA 1144 Standard for Reducing Structure Ignition Hazards from Wildland Fire,1 and Chapter 7A of the California Building Code – but there is no consensus standard for the retrofit of structures, particularly those within 30ft of each other, and standards-making organizations need to fill this gap as soon as possible.
That’s because this kind of development is unfortunately common within the WUI, even in communities that have experienced devastating losses as a result of wildfire. In Santa Rosa, California, the city’s Coffey Park neighbourhood lost more than 1,400 homes to the 2017 Tubbs Fire. But instead of incorporating the state’s ignition-resistance standards – some of the strongest in the world – in its efforts to rebuild the community, Santa Rosa stuck to its original risk mapping that characterized the neighbourhood as ‘unburnable’, allowing developers to decide on their own designs and materials, many of which ignore wildfire ignition guidelines. City government was lauded for its relative speed in rebuilding Coffey Park, but all it has done is recreate a vulnerable community that exists inside the footprint of disaster.
States also play a significant role and can provide building owners and homeowners with the latest guidance on reducing the risk of structure ignition due to wildfire. States can do this through their own agencies and programmes, and by supporting the development of a skilled workforce that can help owners assess and mitigate their homes and properties. States must have regulations in place requiring property owners to maintain defensible space, ensuring that the areas immediately around homes and other buildings are clear of vegetation and other sources of fuel.
States can also rely on voluntary initiatives such as Firewise USA2 and the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, which have proven track records of transforming homes and communities. Residents of nearly 2,000 Firewise communities nationwide have already taken steps to make their homes more resistant to ignition from wildfire, from clearing yard debris to replacing combustible rooftops with materials that are fire resistant. Costlier, more intensive home improvements will require policymakers at the state and federal levels to consider creating tax credits or deductions to support retrofitting activities, and to ensure that grants and low-cost loans are available to aid mitigation and retrofitting efforts for residents of fire-prone areas who otherwise lack resources.
Fire departments for WUI communities must be prepared to respond safely and effectively to wildfires
Most US fire departments are called upon to provide some form of wildland firefighting, but many of those departments have neither the training nor the equipment to fight those fires safely or effectively. Communities that rely on their fire departments to protect lives and property in wildfire events must identify municipal, state and federal funding sources to help them properly train and equip their first responders.
According to NFPA’s Fourth Needs Assessment of the US Fire Service,3 88% of US fire departments – roughly 23,000 – provide wildland and/or WUI firefighting services. Of those, 63% have not formally trained all of their personnel involved in these activities. Personal protective equipment for wildland firefighting is available to all responders in just 32% of those departments, and firefighters in 26% of those departments have no wildland PPE at all. These gaps threaten firefighter health and safety and increase the risk faced by businesses and homeowners. Local fire departments report that brush, grass and forest fire incidents account for nearly a quarter of the response calls they receive each year. From 2011 to 2015, wildfires resulted in an annual average of 1,330 fireground injuries to local fire department personnel.
Fire departments acknowledge their limited capacity. For example, 64% of US fire departments say they could manage structure protection for a maximum of two to five structures during a single wildfire incident; wildfires now routinely involve dozens or even hundreds of structures at a time. Similarly, 52% say they could manage responding to a wildfire of, at most, 10 acres; the average size of a wildfire in the US is nearly 170 acres. Meanwhile, many Americans continue to believe that the fire service will always have the capacity to respond to any fire or emergency event and mount successful rescues and saves. While state and federal agencies also perform wildland firefighting, the scope of those services differs significantly from that of local fire departments and generally does not extend to protecting homes, businesses and other structures.
A case study prepared for the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center in 2010 illustrated that the reality of how firefighters are killed and injured during wildfires is often the result of insufficient training, no protective gear and little or no direction. The study examined wildfires that occurred in Texas and Oklahoma in 2005 and 2006 and that killed four firefighters and severely injured seven. In interviews, firefighters who’d been injured in those fires insisted they would not change a thing about the operation, citing their training to protect life and property – even though they were fighting fires in grassy fields. The study’s recommendations emphasized training for rural fire departments, including teaching firefighters that no acre of vegetation (or any house, for that matter) is worth sustaining injury or risking death. It was clear from the study’s findings that minimal emphasis had been placed on such training.
In addition to prioritizing resources to train and equip their own responders for wildfire, communities whose local fire departments lack capacity to engage large fires must develop and maintain mutual aid agreements with neighbouring communities to increase their response capabilities. At the same time, the public must understand that while the fire department’s response during a wildfire event is critical, it will be much less successful in an unprepared community. That’s why it is imperative that community members take action to prepare their own homes, businesses, and neighbourhoods ahead of a wildfire event.
For more information, go to www.nfpa.org/outthinkwildfire