Firewise at NFPA: A brief history
1985-86 – The wake-up call
Until the fire season of 1985, most people thought about wildfire that burned homes down as a California-only problem.
But when nearly 1,400 homes burned down that year – 600 in Florida alone – fire officials, government agencies and policymakers realized that the problem of home destruction from brush, grass and forest fires was one of national scope.
In 1986, the major federal agencies with responsibility for wildfire response – the USDA Forest Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior - partnered with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) to create a national project to address the “wildland/urban interface” problem.
1987-1993 – Finding our audience and our voice
As a nonprofit life safety organization with global membership including the fire service and consumers, NFPA administered the national project and focused on reaching firefighters and homeowners with safety information.
Early conferences and publications focused on simply raising awareness of the growing problem of homes destroyed during wildfires.
Later, the focus shifted to specific advice for both homeowners and landscapers. NFPA formed a National Fire-Resistant Plant Task Force to work on articles and advice on the best type of plants and landscaping arrangements for fire safety around homes.
This Task Force coined the term “Firewise” to describe the goal of teaching residents about wildfire and how they could put smart practices into play around their homes to reduce the risk of home destruction.
1994-1998 – Reaching out, using research
The Firewise website was launched in 1997 to provide the best available information on wildfire safety for homes to a national audience. The efforts of the renamed “Firewise” task group resulted in popular videos and instructional materials distributed to nurseries, landscape professionals, and residents.
Research dating back to the 1960s showed that the two major risk factors for homes during wildfires were:
- A flammable roof, vulnerable to the embers thrown during a wildfire
- Vegetation close to a house that generated enough heat or flames to ignite siding or other parts of the home
However, it was not until the International Crown Fire Experiments of 1998 in the Northwest Territory of Canada that conclusive findings about “how close” vegetation had to be to ignite a home were revealed. This experiment showed what post-fire observations and scientific models had suggested for decades.
Large flames (such as from crown fires in the tops of trees) had to be quite close to a structure to ignite it from radiant heat alone: usually closer than about 33 feet. This showed that keeping flammable vegetation at this minimal distance on flat ground could change the outcome for a home during a wildfire.
This new research helped NFPA bring together the three main ways to keep homes from igniting:
- Keeping large flames at bay by clearing a modest amount of vegetation
- Ensuring small flames in grass or shrubs could not touch the home
- Using nonflammable roofs to minimize the damage that embers can cause
These and a few other simple techniques are all things that residents can do to take real steps to protect their home from ignition during a wildfire. And homes that don’t ignite – don’t burn.
1999-2002 – Working to connect
With these important findings in hand, NFPA Firewise staff developed ways to get the messages out.
“Your home CAN survive a wildfire,” “It’s the little things that can burn your house down,” and “If your home doesn’t ignite, it can’t burn,” were the catchphrases embedded in the website, in publications, and ultimately delivered in a series of Firewise Communities Planning Workshops throughout the country starting in 1999.
The Firewise workshops walked participants through a fictional community with all-too-real fire risk scenarios. More than 3,000 residents, fire fighters, community leaders, and business people participated from 1999 through 2003.
Many participants in these energizing workshops asked, “What do we do now?” They wanted a way to bring their newfound knowledge home and begin to act on it.
NFPA Firewise and its partners developed a pilot program called “Firewise Communities/USA” and tested it for more than two years in a dozen neighborhoods around the U.S.
This simple template combined physical fire science research and human behavior research to come up with a method that allowed residents to work with neighbors effectively to begin to reduce their wildfire risk.
2002-2010 – Focus on communities
The national Firewise Communities/USA® Recognition Program rolled out in fall of 2002, with the dozen successful pilot communities in the lead.
NFPA Firewise provided training to state forestry agencies and formalized a voluntary relationship among NFPA, the USDA Forest Service, and state forestry departments to assign state Firewise Liaisons to help reach out to communities seeking to use the program template.
Today, the program has over 700 active communities in 40 states. Each community can address their specific wildfire safety needs using the flexible template of the Firewise Communities/USA process. They work with partners including state forestry and local fire departments to organize, plan, and conduct activities each year that make a difference in their wildfire safety.
This voluntary program has documented more than $76 million dollars worth of local wildfire safety actions in communities since 2003.
NFPA’s Wildland Fire Operations Division – Planning the future
In 2010, NFPA created a new Wildland Fire Operations Division that houses the Firewise Communities Program, hired a Division Director, and began to expand staffing. More important, the Division developed a mission and action plan that will help make wildland fire a more prominent issue for NFPA, and provide more resources to work on projects that can help prevent the loss of lives and property during brush, grass and forest fires.
NFPA’s plans for the next three years include several audacious goals:
- Reach 1,000 active Firewise Communities/USA sites by 2013
- Develop targeted Firewise programs to reach everyone from policymakers to schoolchildren
- Facilitate nationally-accepted standards for evacuation procedures in wildfire risk areas
- Improve statistical information on wildland fires and home losses
- Reach global audiences through international partnerships