Are Wildfire Policies and Preparedness Helping or Hurting Risk?

May 03, 2018

This Saturday, May 5, marks the fifth anniversary of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Wildfire Community Preparedness Day. This nationwide event encourages communities to come together and plan projects, such as fire education or vegetation cleanup, that will improve  wildfire preparedness and risk mitigation.

No community deserves to suffer through the devastation of a wildfire event, and since the early 1900s state and federal governments have developed policies and codes aimed at reducing the detrimental impact of wildfires. With record-setting wildfire losses in 2017, and losses steadily increasing year over year, are these efforts truly making an impact? What more can—or must—be done? We can—and must—modify our behavior.

Humans Spark Most Wildfires

Humans are responsible for a majority of wildfire ignitions—an average of 84% of them across the U.S., and a staggering 95% in Southern California. Direct human causes include arson, debris burns, campfires, and cigarettes. Indirect human causes include power lines and equipment uses.

Among natural sources, lightning gets top billing: More than 10,000 lightning-caused fires are reported annually. These are common in the Northwest, Southwest, and Southeast, as there is an abundance of fuel and lightning strikes that occur when conditions are conducive to wildfire spread.

With respect to annual burn acreage in the U.S., lightning is responsible for about half, as these fires often occur in remote areas and are frequently permitted to burn naturally as part of a fire management strategy.

Wildfire Suppression Policies, or Human Intervention

In the early 1900s the federal government established a strong wildfire suppression policy that focuses on immediate human intervention and suppression in the case of a fire, but ignores the complementary management of the gradual accumulation of flammable material.

One of the factors leading to the “suppress-it-at-all-cost” policy is a biased mindset. We inherently understand that we cannot control or suppress a natural catastrophe, be it an earthquake, hurricane, or flood. When it comes to wildfire, however, we think we should take full control, neglecting the fact that wildfire is a necessary component of a heathy ecosystem.

This wildfire suppression policy leads to a significant increase in wildland fuel accumulation and, ironically, increases the risk of catastrophic wildfire damage over time. Following extreme weather patterns such as drought or hot, dry temperatures, dry vegetation provides an abundance  of ideal wildfire fuel. While this is increasingly understood, in many places there is public push back to letting fires burn on public lands close to development.

Since the 1990s, federal spending on wildfire suppression has grown considerably. In addition, prevention budgets are routinely being used to cover the spiraling cost of suppression, perpetuating the cycle. For the calendar year 2017 federal spending for wildfire suppression topped USD 2.92 billion—an all-time record. Combined with a running total of more than USD 13 billion in insured loss damage from 2017’s fires in California, the increasing cost of the wildfire peril is difficult to ignore.

Building in the Wildland-Urban Interface

Approximately one-third of homes in the United States are located where dense forest meets urban development, an area called the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI). Homes in the WUI are likely to be among the first to burn during a wildfire event.

Unfortunately, wildfire preparedness and mitigation measures are often neglected as the WUI expands for the following reason: Residential building in the WUI is lucrative for developers and local governments alike. Because residents will pay developers a premium for the beauty and seclusion of the WUI, local governments are incentivized to rubber-stamp these developments to increase their property tax revenues. Permits can be granted in even the most fire-prone regions. When a wildfire threatens homes in the WUI, however, it is the federal and state governments that pay for wildfire fighting. In other words, development in the WUI is costly for the government and ultimately taxpayers, who fund these firefighting efforts.

The NFPA Journal recently discussed how Santa Rosa Council members and residents are divided on the issue of community recovery after 2017’s catastrophic blazes; some seek an immediate return to normalcy and rebuilding, while others strongly caution against taking this step without first re-evaluating the building codes and urban planning that may have intensified the damage from this event.

Homeowner Mitigation Measures

A few common wildfire mitigation measures exist for homeowners:

  • Defensible space (or firescaping) provides an area extending at least 100 feet from the structure, where the landscaping is designed and continually maintained to cut off or alter paths by which wildfires reach the structure
  • Home hardening involves using fire-resistant building materials to decrease your home’s vulnerability to ember accumulation and ignition
  • Wildfire adapted communities created by neighbors working together and fostered by initiatives such as NFPA's Firewise USA® program

In a recent study of 2,000 New Mexico homes in the WUI, researchers found that nearly 20% of the average home hazard could be reduced by undertaking easy mitigation steps. Approximately two-thirds of the homes in the study lacked key elements of defensible space. As previously mentioned, WUI residents enjoy the seclusion and aesthetic offered by these remote developments and may resist trimming or removing vegetation around their property. Unfortunately, in the event of a wildfire, embers will have an easier time collecting around the structure and can ignite woodpiles, overhanging tree branches, or even mulch.

Some insurers have begun to incentivize defensible space and home hardening efforts through policy discounts, and others are sure to follow suit.

Defensible space, roof and siding material, and many other notable property vulnerability factors are explicitly incorporated as secondary modifiers in AIR’s new U.S. Wildfire model, covering 13 western states and available later in 2018.


Is Your Wildfire Risk Management Going Up in Smoke? Read the article.


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