We Need to Rethink Wildfire in Order to Better Protect Ourselves

13 minute read
Mott is a journalist and podcast producer. His podcast work has received a Peabody and two National Edward R. Murrow Awards; Angle is a professor and the Poe Family Distinguished Faculty Fellow at the University of Montana College of Business. Their new book is This Is Wildfire: How to Protect Yourself, Your Home, and Your Community in the Age of Heat

The blackened cars and homes and lawns in the images circulating after the Maui wildfires were dramatic, and rightfully so: It was the deadliest American wildfire in more than a century. More than 100 died from the flames.

A wildfire on a Hawaiian island might appear at first glance like an anomaly. But the factors that created it—heat, drought, and wind—make fires like this one a possibility across much of America. Driven by a changing climate, a century of forest mismanagement, and more development in fire–prone areas, devastating fires are becoming the norm. Those dramatic images can leave us feeling powerless in the overwhelming force of fire. But that doesn’t have to be the case.

Retired fire scientist Jack Cohen’s work with the Forest Service revolutionized how we think about how wildfires destroy communities—and what we can do about. In the early 1980s, nobody was thinking much about wildfires burning homes. But he cut his teeth on California’s 1980 Panorama Fire, which swept through more than 300 homes, killing four people. He’d assumed that the massive fire front had hit the edge of town, sending homes up in flames. But the data on the ground didn’t add up to the picture. Homes were burning, he found, as much as a half mile ahead of the actual flames. So Cohen focused on solving this mystery: if the forest fire itself wasn’t burning homes, what was it?

As time went on, more fires burnt communities, and Cohen studied the ruins. The puzzle pieces came together. The cause of the devastation, he found, almost always wasn’t the wall of flames emerging from the forest. The vast majority of the time, it was embers, lofting through the air. They can travel propelled by the wind four miles or more if conditions are right. They land on roofs, in vents, on fences, on firewood piled next to homes. When one house ignites, suddenly there’s a source for more flame in the neighborhood. The radiant heat from one home can cause those next to it to go up in flames.

For Cohen, this simple finding—that it’s not the flame front itself that’s the cause of burning communities—has radical implications. That’s because, he says, finding a solution to the wildfire problem requires defining what the problem actually is. And the problem might not be wildfire at all.

“An appropriate definition of wildland urban disasters is a home ignition problem,” he says. “And when we start approaching the problem as a home ignition problem, then we’re not trying to control wildfire.” Instead, Cohen says, we have to focus on changing our behavior, not that of wildfires.

For many folks living in the West, wildfire risk is synonymous with mountains, canyons, and pine trees. But real risk can come when and from where you least expect it. The Maui wildfires are a case in point. The tropical ecosystem is a far cry from the pine-dominated West, where fires generate headlines every summer.

Other fires, too, shatter our expectations of where fires erupt. Take, for example, the Marshall Fire. It erupted in late December 2021 just outside Denver, Colorado. It destroyed over one thousand structures in the towns of Louisville and Superior—including entire subdivisions, commercial buildings lining a six-lane highway, and a hotel. The fire roared up no mountains and burnt few trees.

Read More: Scenes of Destruction and Loss After the Maui Fires

Like the Maui fires, the Marshall was caused in part by downed power lines as high winds blasted it through flat, high plains. A moist spring and early summer allowed grasses to grow tall and dense. Then, a bone-dry second half of the year and sparse early winter snow left the landscape parched. Driven by winds of over one hundred miles per hour, the fire blew from house to house. Twenty-four hours later it was mostly over, the smoldering foundations blanketed by an eerie coat of fresh snow. It looked like a nuclear winter. More and more, the reality of wildfire includes places like the suburbs of Denver, or even the tropics of Hawaii.

Spread of wildfires in homes
In this aerial view, burned homes sit in a neighborhood decimated by the Marshall Fire on January 4, 2022 in Louisville, Colorado. Michael Ciaglo—Getty Images

Densely constructed homes and buildings offer lots of opportunities for wind-driven embers to find weak spots—some debris on a roof, an uncleaned gutter, a propane tank, a rooftop terrace, a townhome under construction. Once the fire finds a structure, the nearby structures become the primary source of fuel. Now the fire becomes a threat to the entire neighborhood. Traditional wildland firefighting tactics just won’t work or are impossible to safely execute. Urban firefighting systems, like fire engines, ladder trucks, and pumpers, are overwhelmed by the sheer number of homes to defend.

Even if you don’t live in the mountains, don’t take your home’s safety for granted. Whatever you consider your community’s risk to be, check that perception against what the experts think. Visit wildfirerisk.org, a website developed by the Forest Service with interactive risk maps and loads of other information.

If you do live in a fire-prone area, there’s a lot you can do to make your home and neighborhood safer. The first broad category to think about is addressing your roofing and vents. Since one of the main threats to your house from a wildfire is floating embers, your roof represents the largest surface area on your home where those embers can accumulate and ignite.

About one million homes in medium-to-high wildfire risk areas have wooden roofs. These can catch fire in an instant. Headwaters Economics estimated it would cost $6 billion to replace all roofs in the WUI in the country with fire-resistant materials. If you have to replace your roof, look for what are called “Class A” materials. These include metal, composite shingles, concrete, and clay tile. Remember that a fancy new roof won’t do you any good if it’s not clean. Don’t let flammable stuff gather up there, and check it regularly.

Attic and crawl space vents are another common weak spot that embers can exploit, a problem compounded by the things we tend to store in those places—cardboard

boxes, files, and lots of other highly flammable stuff. These vents, however, are critical for managing moisture and airflow in nearly every home. The best solution is to screen the vents. The National Fire Prevention Association recommends a one-eighth-inch screening as the best balance of fire and airflow safety. Putting up these screens is relatively easy and inexpensive—all you need is the screening material, tin snips, a staple gun, and a hammer.

The next category to think about is stuff that might be attached to your house—decks, fences, gutters, and the like. Like roofs, decks present another large landing area for floating embers. If you have a deck, never store firewood, scrap wood, wooden rakes, or anything else flammable underneath it. Keep that space underneath clean of flammable debris as well and grab a screwdriver or putty knife and clean out debris from between the deck boards too. If you’re building a new deck, consider a nonflammable

material, like a Class-A composite wood or aerated concrete. These are more expensive, but generally have a longer life. Space out the boards one quarter inch, as opposed to the typical one eighth-inch gap. Spread the joists out farther too—ideally twenty-four inches. That allows debris to fall through the deck, rather than gather in those tiny gaps.

When it comes to fences, think of them as fire delivery devices. If a fence catches fire and it’s attached to your house, it’ll deliver those flames straight to your living space. Replacing the whole fence could be costly—but one solution could mean building

with similarly nonflammable composite or concrete materials within just five feet of any building. Use materials and designs that tend to capture the least amount of debris. These often tend to provide the most airflow. And remember that even a nonflammable,

metal fence can be a problem if the areas around it capture leaves, pine needles, and other flammable debris.

Gutters are the final threat in this group of stuff attached to your home. If you’re designing a new home or renovating the one you have, gutters can often be eliminated. If you need them, however, keep them clean. Gutter screens can help, but they often get clogged up. A simple blower is the best tool for the job. Get up there and blow out everything that’s collected.

Read More: Even as Things Burn, We Can't Wrap Ourselves Around Climate Change

The third category to consider is siding, windows, and trim materials. This stuff is important, but the other areas—roofs, decks, and gutters—should be addressed first. Siding and trim can be noncombustible, ignition-resistant, or combustible. Noncombustible materials are the gold standard. They won’t burn and include things like fiber-cement, metal siding, and three coat stucco. Ignition-resistant materials, like composite wood, brick, and stone, will withstand most conditions, but can still ignite under extreme heat. And with stone or brick siding, note that while they do a nice job protecting your home, they generally provide only a thin layer sitting over wooden sheeting. In extreme heat, the wood underneath can ignite. You don’t necessarily need to ditch your combustible siding now. If you’re beginning to invest in hardening your home, start with the other stuff. But when it comes time to replace that siding, consider a material that won’t burn.

Outside your home itself, pay attention to everything in your yard. Get rid of the flammable stuff abutting your house — from wood mulch to flammable plants to trees, if their canopies are getting close to your house. Farther out, think about how your yard can act as fuel for flames. That means trimming low branches that could send flames up a tree, like a ladder. It also means removing trees entirely if they’re too closely spaced together. Driveways and paths can act as fuelbreaks, should a fire come through. Ultimately, make sure there’s no continuous path for fire to burn. “It’s the little things that are important,” Cohen says.

These actions can make or break the resilience of your home should a fire come. At the same time that you fix up your house, though, you should also make sure to get a go-bag ready and sign up for evacuation notices in your area. All of these, though, are individual actions—and that’s a starting point. But coexisting with wildfire requires working together collectively.

Since the West’s increasingly devastating fire seasons are in part driven by warming temperatures, anyone living in fire-prone areas needs to support policies and politicians that confront climate change head-on. There are other, tangible actions you can take as well. Getting all the work done on all the homes that need it has an astronomical price tag. Call on your local, state, and federal governments to help support that cost for everyone, and especially those that most need assistance. Support zoning, codes, and regulations that require more fire-resilient building practices.

Some of this work is already beginning in communities across the country. Community tool libraries have sprouted up in communities across the West. And some change is getting written in law. Flagstaff, Arizona, for example, implemented their own iteration of an international code meant to keep urban areas safe from wildfire. To do it, they had lengthy meetings with the public to make sure the community had its needs heard. In San Diego, California, where more than 40,000 homes are at risk of fire, the community has adopted intensive land use planning and regulation, involving managing brush to create “defensible space” around homes. Boulder, Colorado, too has implement fire resilience regulations. In addition, in the wake of the Marshall Fire, the county passed a “wildfire tax” to help complete the massive amount of work necessary to address the scale of the wildfire problem. Headwaters Economics offers a land use planning tool that can help communities find the right policy fit for them.

In addition to solutions focused on homes, more government agencies, tribal groups, and even citizen-led organizations are recognizing the vital role fire plays on the landscape. Scientists say carefully conducted, low-intensity “prescribed fire” can help make forests more resilient to wildfires, especially around communities. Fire, after all, is a natural—and crucial—part of ecosystems across the country. More than 99 percent of these burns go according to plan. However, issues with bureaucracy, funding, staffing, and lawsuits mean it’s hard for government agencies to implement this sort of burning at the scale necessary. Other groups are having tremendous success. Tribes across the country are working to bring back this sort of fire, which was historically bound up with culture but violently suppressed by U.S. government policy. In California, Washington, and Oregon, citizen-led “prescribed burning associations” are sprouting up like seedlings to re-introduce fire to private landscapes choked with decades of accumulated fuel.

In short, all the work necessary will take individual vigilance, community organizing, policy change, and an immense reallocation of resources. And this requires a change so much deeper than just policy. “We just don’t have a culture of having fire; we have a culture of not having fire,” Mark Finney, a Forest Service research forester, says. “So when it comes to trying to change that, you’re overturning generations of belief.” Changing beliefs means changing culture. It means changing ideology.

Overturning generations of belief—a whole ideology—is a daunting task. But all the work already getting done across the country shows that there’s a groundswell forming. The change needed to shift culture will always come from the ground up, not the top down.

In this way, doing the work that’s crucial to saving your own home and community is a revolutionary act. It’s a recognition that the solutions to the fire problem aren’t just out in the distant forests and mountains. They’re right here, at home. Getting a new roof, installing one-eighth-inch eave vents, and pruning and cutting trees and shrubs to create defensible space are downright radical. So is calling for more prescribed fire on the landscape near your home, rather than less. And, of course, organizing your neighbors. That’s because learning to live with fire requires learning to live better with one another. And that pays off. It plants the first planks of a bridge to a better world for so much more than just wildfire.

Adapted from This Is Wildfire: How to Protect Yourself, Your Home, and Your Community in the Age of Heat

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