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NFPA Impact: The need to embrace defensible housing

In the late 1800s and early 1900s entire Canadian communities were lost or severely damaged due to wildland/urban interface fires. In many cases, these fires were the impetus for the formation of fire brigades and for the creation of building standards. Vancouver was destroyed by wildland fire in 1886 and in 1908, Fernie, B.C., suffered the same fate. Unfortunately, we appear to have forgotten this history. In 2002 a B.C. auditor general’s report found that there was a need for wildland/urban interface standards such as those in the NFPA. In 2003, more than 33,000 people had to leave their homes in the Okanagan Valley because of the massive wildland/urban interface blaze. But have we learned anything or taken any action to reduce the threats? I think not, and the problem is not unique to B.C.

June 1, 2009
By Sean Tracey

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In the late 1800s and early 1900s entire Canadian communities were lost or severely damaged due to wildland/urban interface fires. In many cases, these fires were the impetus for the formation of fire brigades and for the creation of building standards. Vancouver was destroyed by wildland fire in 1886 and in 1908, Fernie, B.C., suffered the same fate. Unfortunately, we appear to have forgotten this history. In 2002 a B.C. auditor general’s report found that there was a need for wildland/urban interface standards such as those in the NFPA. In 2003, more than 33,000 people had to leave their homes in the Okanagan Valley because of the massive wildland/urban interface blaze. But have we learned anything or taken any action to reduce the threats? I think not, and the problem is not unique to B.C.

The Canadian building and fire codes are silent on the need to enhance design requirements areas that are at high risk for wildland/urban interface fires. Therefore, we still permit developments and single structures to be built in these zones without any consideration for the need to protect them. The fact that these structures are indefensible creates a crisis for Canadian fire departments that must attempt to protect these homes. Studies of fires have shown that minor building code changes can lead to the creation of defensible housing. These changes include addressing the need to assess the potential risk of wildfire, and, based on this evaluation, specifying additional building protection measures.

NFPA 1144 Standard for Reducing Structure Ignition Hazards from Wildland Fire, 2008 Edition, represents the latest evolution of these design principles. It was first introduced in 1935 and contains basic criteria for fire agencies, land-use planners, architects, developers and local government for planning development in areas that might be threatened by wildfire. This standard, when used as part of a co-operative approach within the community, will provide guidance in the design and development of Firewise communities (www.firewise.org ). Firewise aims to help protect the lives of residents and firefighters, and reduce property damage, when wildfires strike.

Since 2003 I have been speaking out about NFPA standards that create defensible spaces, yet, to my knowledge, no community in Canada has enacted these standards. The Canadian program FireSmart promotes such community measures but it is solely a source of information and is not enforceable. NFPA 1144 is enforceable as a bylaw in Canada, but it requires that someone in the community take the lead. NFPA 1144 essentially covers design requirements for individual properties in the community and the need to maintain these properties. It is complemented by NFPA 1141, which identifies development standards. 

NFPA 1141 Standard for Fire Protection Infrastructure for Land Development in Suburban and Rural Areas, 2008 Edition, addresses the design requirements for planned building groups. The 1998 edition was one of the first NFPA standards translated into French in Quebec. It has specific requirements for community infrastructure (e.g., roads, water supplies, etc.), and occupancy limits for areas based on the ability to evacuate them, the need for properly designed access routes, and requirements for community safety and emergency preparedness.

Both NFPA 1141 and NFPA 1144 are written in clear language and are meant to be adopted by municipalities for enforcement at the local level. Used in conjunction with education programs and community activities these standards are intended to create defensible communities.

We need to create defensible communities in Canada. If development officials and homeowners continue to insist on building structures and communities that are not defensible, then they will continue to burn and the cycle of wildland/urban interface conflagration will continue. Fire services should not waste resources or risk the lives of firefighters to protect these losing causes. Let them burn. Instead, let us put our resources into  what can be saved. We need a community-based approach to protection, as this has proven to work. We need to run public-awareness programs, we need to educate homeowners on property-maintenance standards, we need to adopt design standards on housing and we need to adopt development standards. All these are within your reach. NFPA is standing by to assist you.

NFPA has a tremendous number of free resources for communities through its Firewise website, www.firewise.org, including free materials for community planning that can be downloaded for free, free DVDs on firefighter safety that can ordered and free training on water supplies. •


Sean Tracey, P.Eng., MIFireE, is the Canadian regional manager of the National Fire Protection Association International and formerly the Canadian Armed Forces fire marshal. Contact him at stracey@nfpa.org


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