Author(s): Lucian Deaton. Published on July 1, 2015.

In April, my wife and I visited friends in Southern California. We had dinner at a restaurant with an open-air dining space, and I mentioned that architects obviously do not have to worry about rain in Long Beach. Our friends reminded us that the community enjoys 320 days of sunshine a year. Then, after a pause, they added that this year it was actually a bit more than 320 days.

That “bit more” is a result of the drought that continues to grip California, the Southwest, and parts of the Midwest, a situation that illuminates the growing risk of wildfire. Sunny skies may be good for tourism, but not for communities in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) and their residents. As development in WUI areas continues, drought lurks like a smoldering cigarette on the couch of residential fire safety.

Drought also represents a call to action for NFPA’s focus on the future of structural fires. This resonated with me as I listened to Dr. Stephen Pyne, the country’s foremost forestry historian, speak at a recent conference hosted by the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. He challenged us to think of the WUI not as wilderness, but as bits of urban development that happen to have unique (and often fire-prone) landscaping—a perspective that makes it easy to grasp the threat faced by structures in the WUI.

It also clarifies the idea of the “home ignition zone.” Drought stresses surrounding vegetation by depleting its internal moisture, making it more susceptible to threats such as insects, disease, and fire. In a wildfire, structures face a greater risk from embers produced by drier fuels, and drought can make the zone around a structure less resilient against wildfire impingement.

NFPA’s focus on fire protection infrastructure in land development, rural water supply, and structure ignition brings valuable information and resources to this changing environment. For firefighter operations in the WUI, NFPA’s focus on small community and volunteer fire department preparedness for fire suppression and increased community coordination provides guidance for the new reality many communities now face.

It is important to recognize that the issue of drought is often part of a broader discussion on climate change and the debate over the legitimacy of that argument. Whether you believe the past two centuries of human industrial output has impacted the environment or that we are simply straddling a shift in global weather cycles, we can equally acknowledge that we have designed our built environment and social processes for a time that is now past.

At the Arizona State conference, Dr. Pyne explained that we are entering a time of resilience in wildfire response. He defines that resilience as our need to accept the conditions in this new reality and to protect those assets that we want to save, such as structures, watersheds, and communities, while allowing fire to provide its natural balance to the environment.

Homeowners in the WUI play a key role in that new reality by making their structures safer from wildfire. NFPA helps leads those efforts through its Firewise Communities/USA® Recognition Program and through a variety of standards. It can continue to do this by drawing on its experience in structural fire safety—even in a time of drought.

LUCIAN DEATON manages the Firewise Communities and Fire Adapted Communities Programs in NFPA's Wildland Fire Operation Division.