Fires aren’t larger or more powerful — Americans have moved further and further into wildfire zones

Fires aren’t larger or more powerful — Americans have moved further and further into wildfire zones
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Of all of Mother Nature’s weather, storms and phenomena, wildfires are the most frustrating because they are so unpredictable. Even when fires are predictable, give humans in their paths little time, if any, to assess the risk and take evasive action, such as evacuating their homes or businesses. 

While experts can calculate humidity, terrain, wind patterns, fuel sources, and give some indication of a fire’s direction and speed, many of those factors can change on a moment’s notice and exponentially increase the speed and ferocity of a fire. This unpredictability gives experts little, if any, time to warn people in the path of those fires of the impending danger. Unfortunately, the average person’s understanding of wildfires is minimal — even those living in the urban wildfire zones, near forests or grasslands.


The Carr fire now burning in California is a prime example of the nature of fires and how dangerous they are. The Carr Fire has burned through almost 100,000 acres and is minimally contained at 20 percent. Residents in-and-around this particular fire have suffered enormous damages, loss of life, and anxiety and suffering.


One particularly heart-wrenching story is that of Ed Bledsoe’s family. The Associated Press reported that while Bledsoe was gathering supplies for his family prepping for an evacuation, the flames reached his home. Bledsoe, using the family’s only vehicle, rushed back only to find a police barricade.
He searched shelters for his family and eventually combed through the burned ruins of their home. He found nothing but held out hope.
His wife and great-grandchildren did not make it out alive.

This horrific story of the death of this family is an unfortunate example of how quickly and dangerously fires can turn and destroy lives and property. But it is the nature of fires and we don’t fully grasp fire’s power. 

Why are fires so powerful and unpredictable? In many cases the causes are man-made; and the consequences are man-made.

As forests are left to their own growth, we are reluctant to allow them to burn for fear of them getting out of control. Or, we fail to execute controlled burns to eliminate fuel (and thereby help restore forest lands) and thus diminish the power of future natural wildfires.

We are also responsible in some ways for the power of wildfires. We fail to take proper mitigation steps to protect property. The National Fire Protection Association has an excellent program informing residents living in areas prone to wildfires how to mitigate against the dangers of those fires.

The FireWise Program helps property owners take mitigation efforts that might not only save their property, but make wildfire fighting safer for those smoke jumpers and firefighters that risk their lives to battle these monsters. If you live in the urban-wildfire zone or in or near a forest, you should seriously consider taking steps outlined in the program.

Since returning home to the Southwest after working in Washington for almost six years, my wife and I have been evacuated twice because of wildfires. Fortunately, we did not suffer any property loss or loss of life. We have also taken appropriate measures to mitigate against wildfires near our homes.

But another often overlooked measure is insurance. We have purchased homeowners’ policies which provide fire mitigation efforts in the event our property is in imminent danger of burning from a wildfire. We were fortunate to have that service as part of our homeowners’ insurance and it was put to good use recently. 

As a wildfire raged near our home, our insurance company, at no cost to us, dispatched a fire mitigation team to our property. They assessed the immediate danger based on all the available information used by the firefighting teams — wind, humidity, fuel, terrain.

This fire mitigation team was ready to take significant action to prevent loss of our home to a wildfire. They were prepared to setup a perimeter sprinkler system; and, if needed, to douse our home with fire retardant to try and save it. The insurance company had a vested interest in doing so. These mitigation efforts would be much cheaper than having to pay a total loss property damage claim had the fire destroyed our home.

If you live in an area prone to wildfires, check with your insurance policy to see if your carrier provides such a service. It could save your home. 

Finally, a short comment about FEMA and the National Interagency Fire Center. FEMA is busy providing Fire Management Assistance Grants to help state and local governments with the financial costs of fighting wildfires. The NIFC is busy coordinating information about the fires to commanders on the ground and coordinating the deployment of firefighters and smoke jumpers to help combat these wildfires.

Wildfires have always existed in the United States. The reason they’re so prominent in the news today is not that the fires are larger, more powerful, or more frequent. They’re prominent because as the American population has grown and moved further and further into wildfire zones, there is a natural increase in the loss of property, and, unfortunately, lives, because of our ability to choose where to live. 

Don’t become a victim of wildfires. Take appropriate steps to mitigate the dangers of these wildfires and protect your life and property from their awesome power.

Michael D. Brown was the under secretary of Homeland Security and director of FEMA from 2001-2005. You can follow him on Twitter @michaelbrownusa.