Author(s): Ryan Depew. Published on September 1, 2011.


A firefighter frees a dog from a kennel threatened by wildfire in Southern California in August. NFPA standards cover many aspects of wildland fire operations, including protective clothing and equipment. (Photograph: AP Wide World /Al Cuizon/The Sun)

Wildfire Standards
Managing the wildland-urban interface through NFPA standards development 

NFPA Journal®, October 2011 

By Ryan Depew 

NFPA codes and standards provide a practical and effective blueprint for how to minimize and manage the wildfire threat, and NFPA technical committees are working to standardize how we should collectively address wildfire issues. This work comes at a critical moment; from January through August this year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, wildland fires burned nearly 7 million acres (2.8 million hectares), significantly above average for the year-to-date period and the fourth-most on record. The month of June was the second-worst on record, with 1.3 million acres (526,091 hectares) burned. During that eight-month period, thousands of structures were lost in the wildland-urban interface, or WUI — the area where wildland fuels and structures intermix — and hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on fire suppression efforts. It is clear that more work needs to be done in order to address loss of life and property as a result of wildfire.

Wildfires have done their part to rejuvenate forests, grasslands, and other wild areas throughout the course of history, and it can seem strange to talk about fixing a “problem” that is a necessary part of a healthy ecosystem. But industry professionals are realizing that fire extinguishment alone is not the answer to managing wildfires; instead, a combination of preventative measures and mitigation efforts might be the best approach. Techniques such as vegetation management and prescribed burning can go a long way toward reducing the effects of wildfire on a given area. We must also take into account where and how we develop in the WUI. As we continue to develop areas that are fireprone and previously uninhabited, planners, developers, business owners, homeowners, and fire protection organizations must all do their part to prepare for wildfires and to minimize their impact.

All of these aspects, and many more, are supported by NFPA standards, which provide planners, developers, business owners, homeowners, and fire protection organizations in the WUI with guidance on land development, structure ignition hazards, water supply, and wildfire management, to name a few. However, the requirements of these standards are not enforced by local governments unless they have been mandated by local ordinance or adopted into state law. NFPA does not currently offer a comprehensive wildland-urban interface code for state and local adoption, but it is important nonetheless to recognize that NFPA has the resources available to address many of the hazards of wildfire damage and loss of life and property. 

• NFPA 1141, Fire Protection Infrastructure for Land Development in Wildland, Rural, and Suburban Areas
This standard provides planners, developers, and communities with information needed to develop fire protection and emergency services infrastructure to reduce the fire damage potential and other impacts of land use changes on a given area. Suburban and rural areas that have inadequate fire department resources, extended fire department response time, limited access, and unusual terrain need to plan ahead in order to prevent loss of life and property as a result of wildfire. The standard directs the user on topics such as means of access, building separation, fire protection, water supply, emergency preparedness, and fire department capabilities. 

• NFPA 1144, Reducing Structure Ignition Hazards from Wildland Fire
NFPA 1144 provides the user with the necessary information to conduct a thorough review of a structure and take subsequent actions to protect that structure from wildfire. The standard focuses on the area surrounding the structure, known as the structure ignition zone, which expands outward approximately 200 feet (61 meters) and 360 degrees around the structure. Proper design features, construction materials, landscaping, and fuel modification techniques throughout the structure ignition zone are all detailed within the standard. When paired with NFPA 1141, these two standards reflect the principles behind NFPA’s Firewise® Communities Program. The Firewise Communities Program, which is co-sponsored by the USDA Forest Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, and the National Association of State Foresters, educates the public on what it can do to reduce loss from wildfire and promotes voluntary collaborative fire safety action for residents in WUI communities. Its Firewise Communities/USA® recognition program has enrolled more than 700 neighborhoods in 40 states.  

• NFPA 1142, Water Supplies for Suburban and Rural Fire Fighting
In addition to providing standards for infrastructure development and hazard reduction in the WUI, NFPA also provides standards that focus on fireground operations, firefighter training, and personal protective clothing and equipment for fire suppression personnel. NFPA 1142 identifies methods to assist rural and suburban fire departments with identifying alternative water supplies for structural fire fighting purposes when another reliable system does not already exist. The standard shows the user how to calculate minimum water supplies required for a given structure by utilizing information such as occupancy hazard classification, structure size, and construction type. Determining minimum water supply requirements prior to approving development is an important step in ensuring that new development and changes in land use are not putting occupants at an elevated level of risk. By utilizing NFPA 1142 during the plan review process, the local fire authority, or authority having jurisdiction, may take proactive steps to ensure that water supply requirements will be met. 

 • NFPA 1143, Wildland Fire Management
Fire protection organizations in the WUI face many challenges when wildfires strike. NFPA 1143 provides fire protection organizations with information on prevention, mitigation, preparation, suppression, and post-incident activities such as reporting, incident review, and finance/administration. The standard details management practices and policies that are crucial for fire protection organizations to develop a wildland fire management program. As part of that management program, the fire protection organizations must also properly train and equip personnel for when the time comes to respond. 

• NFPA 1051, Wildland Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications
• NFPA 1977, Protective Clothing and Equipment for Wildland Fire Fighting
• NFPA 1984, Respirators for Wildland Fire-Fighting Operations

Fire protection organizations that need to train their personnel can utilize NFPA 1051, which identifies the minimum job performance requirements for individuals assigned to preparedness and suppression activities. There are detailed job performance requirements used for qualifying individuals to serve as a Wildland Fire Fighter I, Wildland Fire Fighter II, Wildland Fire Officer I, Wildland Fire Officer II, Wildland/Urban Interface Coordinator, and Wildland/Urban Interface Protection Specialist. Once trained, organizations must properly protect and equip personnel to carry out their duties. NFPA 1977, Protective Clothing and Equipment for Wildland Fire Fighting, and NFPA 1984, Respirators for Wildland Fire Fighting Operations, provide organizations with the minimum design, performance, testing, and certification requirements for wildland firefighting protective clothing, equipment, and respirators. A thorough wildland fire management program, proper training, and use of personal protective clothing and equipment provides the foundation for responders to carry out their duties in a safe and efficient manner.

These standards provide comprehensive requirements for reducing loss of life and property as a result of wildfire in the WUI. Planners, developers, business owners, homeowners, and fire protection organizations may all benefit from referencing these standards. However, it is important to adopt these standards as local requirements in order to gain the most benefit. Ultimately, areas that have adopted a standardized approach will be able to monitor how efficient the policies are and identify areas for improvement. The NFPA Code Fund is supporting research on the effectiveness of regulation and enforcement of WUI standards. The Fire Protection Research Foundation is overseeing the project (“Addressing Community Wildfire Risk: A Review and Assessment of Regulatory and Planning Tools”) to evaluate the number of communities utilizing some form of regulatory tool, the effectiveness of those tools, and the feasibility of adopting a national WUI Code. The project is scheduled for completion by the end of this year.

NFPA’s new strategic plan reflects the Board of Directors’ desire to make solutions to the wildland fire problem a top priority. NFPA has the ability to further prevent loss of life and property in the WUI through the expansion of the Firewise Communities Program and the potential implementation of a WUI Code. Providing NFPA technical committees with the most up-to-date research will help determine if the available regulatory tools can be improved upon, or if a national WUI Code is a feasible solution. NFPA recognizes the need for continued improvement in WUI fire protection and will continue to utilize data management, international outreach, and external stakeholder support to achieve our mission of saving lives and property.

Ryan Depew is a fire service specialist at NFPA.