Codes and standards
NFPA Impact: August 2016
When will something finally be done to develop a building code for the wildland urban interface?
By Shayne Mintz
An insurance industry trade magazine, The Claims Journal, reported the Fort McMurray fire as being the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history. Insured losses – including physical damage and business interruption – are anticipated to be in excess of $4 billion.
The fire charred more than 580,000 hectares (1.43 million acres) of land, caused the evacuation of almost 90,000 people and destroyed at least 10 per cent of the city, including more than 2,400 homes and other structures. This fire will go in the record books as being one of the most devastating disasters this country has seen. Losses in Fort McMurray have already eclipsed those of the previous two most devastating fire events in Canada combined – 238 homes were destroyed by wildfire in Kelowna, B.C., in 2003 and 433 homes burned in Slave Lake, Alta., in 2011.
In a letter to more than 50 ministers (federal MPs and MLAs and MPPs in eight provinces whose constituencies include significant wildland fire prone areas), the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, the NFPA and FireSmart Canada strongly suggested that it’s time to fully address the lack of building codes for structures in wildfire susceptible areas.
Building codes in general are intended to ensure occupant safety and appropriate building performance in the event of structural fire. However, to this point, and with the exception of some work done in Saskatchewan last year, little to no consideration of wildland fire risk reduction has been incorporated into any national or provincial building codes.
While responsibility for wildland fire risk reduction is frequently left to municipalities, in several provinces including Alberta local authorities have very limited ability to implement building bylaws that exceed provincial code requirements. This means that municipalities cannot be expected, nor do they have the tools, to lead the implementation of wildland fire mitigation measures. Therefore, higher levels of government and the National Model Building and Fire Code process must take action to address and facilitate the construction of safer homes in communities that are pre-disposed to wildland fire hazards or threats.
From the experience in Fort McMurray it is clear that building codes could and should provide consideration for wildland fire vulnerability. Local jurisdictions are typically the most aware of their resident wildland fire risks, and should be given authority to require distinctive wildland fire mitigation measures where appropriate.
The development and adoption of mitigation practices and codes and standards need not be a daunting task. After all, much of the work to inform code developers and government has already been done. NFPA 1144 (2013) – Standard for Reducing Structure Ignition Hazards from Wildland Fire, provides a methodology for assessing wildland fire ignition hazards around existing structures, residential developments and subdivisions. The standard also focuses on improving property or planned property developments located in a WUI area.
Ultimately the standard provides for minimum construction requirements for new construction to reduce the potential of structural fires that result from wildland fire exposure. The standard covers design, construction, and landscaping for structures in the WUI and can be used as a tool to assess fuel sources in and around communities for their potential to ignite structures, and identifies mitigation measures to reduce the chance of structural ignition.
Partners in Protection and the FireSmart: Protecting your Community from Wildfire guide also focus on how individuals and communities can work together to reduce the risk of loss from interface fires in Canada. The FireSmart guide provides practical tools and information for use by WUI residents, municipal officials, land use planners, structural and wildland firefighters, and industries that work in the WUI. Primarily the FireSmart manual identifies interface issues and provides tools to evaluate WUI hazards; mitigation strategies and techniques; emergency response for agencies and individuals; training for wildland firefighters; community education programs; and, regional planning solutions.
Both the NFPA standard and the Partners in Protection FireSmart information have been in existence for many years. Now it’s just a matter of getting the regulators to recognize and heed the work that has already been done and take action.
Shayne Mintz is the Canadian Regional Director for the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Contact Shayne at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter at @ShayneMintz