A group of top experts and senior fire officials from the U.S. and Canada participated in a day-long workshop on June 29th to address the mounting danger posed by wildfires to communities. The workshop was convened as a part of a project that examined the 2016 wildfires that devastated Fort McMurray, Alberta and Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The Global Resilience Institute (GRI), in partnership with the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), jointly organized and chaired the event.
Dr. Henri Grissino-Mayer, Associate Head of the Department of Geography at the University of Tennessee; Carole Walker, Executive Director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association; Gary Wood, Southeastern Regional Coordinator for the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Strategy; Dr. Steve Quarles, Chief Scientist for Wildfire and Durability at the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety Research Center; and Tom Welle of NFPA’s Wildfire Division made up the morning’s panel that helped to frame the discussion. This was followed by a series of short presentations on innovative approaches to the wildfire problem. The participants then broke into groups to devise recommendations for addressing four challenges: the growing potential for wildfire to disrupt lifeline infrastructure sectors; the potential for destructive wildfires to increase in the coming decades, driven by factors including urban encroachment on wildlands; the creation of wildfire adapted communities; and the role insurance providers take on before, during and after a wildfire event.
“We’re not going to advance this imperative of resilience at the societal level if we’re each in our own compartments,” GRI Director Stephen Flynn stressed during opening remarks that outlined the importance for close collaboration between academia, the public sector, and the private sector. “At the end of the day what need to not only identify novel solutions, but determine how to scale them quickly given the urgency and the exposure of a growing number of communities to this challenge,” Flynn noted.
Flynn was joined in welcoming the group by NFPA President and CEO Jim Pauley, and Wildfire Division Manager Michele Steinberg. Pauley pointed out that NFPA has been successfully helping to advance fire safety for 130 years, but that managing the risk of wildfires that come in contact with the built environment requires new collaborations that take a more comprehensive systems approach.
“Nothing that we do exists on its own,” Pauley said. “For every problem we solve, new ones crop up every day and we are faced with new challenges.”
As part of its ongoing post-disaster and disruptive assessments program funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, GRI completed an initial study on “Wildland-Urban Interface” fires, a draft of which was provided in advance to the workshop participants. The study lays out lessons learned and proposes recommendations to prepare communities to bolster their resilience in the face of wildfire threats. As the day’s workshop drew to a close, the break-out groups shared their thoughts and recommendations with all the participants. Questions and comments were fielded from the group, with lively contributions from all corners of the room.
“As they were leaving the workshop, many of the participants commented that they came away with a new appreciation for aspects of the Wildland-Urban-Interface challenge that they had not thought about before,” said GRI Assistant Director Connor Goddard. “That is no small thing since these were some of the most seasoned wildfire experts in the world!”
Using the insights gleaned from the workgroups and open discussions, GRI will work with NFPA to pull together a final, joint report to be released to the public with major findings and recommendations.
About the GRI:
The Global Resilience Institute (globalresilience.northeastern.edu) is leading a university-wide interdisciplinary effort to advance resilience-related initiatives that contribute to the security, sustainability, health and well-being of societies. Our objective is to help advance preparedness at multiple levels to effectively respond to slowly emerging disruptions and sudden disasters, both human-made and naturally-occurring.