Equilibrium & Sustainability

Feds warn of growing risk of fires in suburbs, exurbs

Pete Piringer/Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service
(Pete Piringer/Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service)

The federal government is calling for American firefighters to get additional funding and an intensive training regimen to better prepare for a new era of climate-change fueled fires in the country’s growing suburbs and exurbs.

The expanding fringe where cities merge into wildlands — the wildland-urban interface (WUI) — is becoming the frontline for deadly blazes, U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) Director Lori Moore-Merrell warned this week.

“In the last year, we lost nearly 2,500 lives to fire — including 276 children and 96 firefighters,” she added.

“It is important to note that 99 million people — or a third of the U.S. population — now live in the wildland urban interface environment, yet most have no idea what [it] is or the dangers that poses,” Moore-Merrell said at a press conference on Tuesday in New York premiering the administration’s new Fire Service National Strategy.

The federal findings Moore-Merrell presented were grim. Americans have less time now than ever to get out of a burning house safely, a measure of how destructive fires are getting. They have more chances of dying in a fire today than in the 1980s — particularly if they are poorer, minority or live in public housing.

“The changes in our construction practices using lightweight building materials, and the evolution of technology, using lithium-ion energy and robotics, all pose new fire threats,” Moore-Merrell said.

But most concerning is the combination of increasing development and climate change, which elevate “the risk of losing entire communities from wildfire … to a year-round threat,” according to a U.S. Fire Administration summary of the national fire threat released this week.

This risk is particularly dramatic in the expanding suburban counties around major cities which comprise some of America’s fastest growing municipalities. Suburban and exurban counties in states including North Carolina, Texas, Florida and California provide families big acreage at affordable prices.

But this expansion has come at the price of pushing settlements into wildlands, which in many parts of the country, particularly those dominated by fire-loving conifers, means essentially moving into fire country.

While nearly all urban fire departments in the U.S. respond to WUI fires, only 40 percent of those fire departments provide their members with training on urban interface strategy and tactics, the report found.

That’s a problem because WUI fires, which can emerge from forests to burn entire neighborhoods, fall in a dangerous middle ground between the skill sets of the two main groupings of American firefighters.

For structural firefighters, trained to enter a single intensively burning building and put it out before it spreads, they represent the disorienting new experience of an entire neighborhood on fire, as in the Marshall Fire that ravaged suburban Denver last new years.

For wildland firefighters, trained on fires of enormous scale burning across remote rural forests or prairies, WUI fires mean operating in densely populated territories that can’t be easily sacrificed to fire, because lives and property are at stake.

Saving lives and structures in the WUI hinges on the necessity of developing “non-standardized and relatively new and different strategies and tactics,” according to the report.

While these fires tend to be identified with the western U.S., “the Southeast may see large fires increase by 300 to 400% in the next 30 years,” fire chief Donna Black of Duck, N.C. testified to the summit that assembled the new fire strategy.

WUI fires also require a new level of interdisciplinary integration of resources among state, local federal and tribal firefighters, the report found.

It also warned of additional environmental contaminants from fires in cities, which are full of artificial and high tech materials that can release toxic fumes. In particular, the report singled out the growing cancer risks posed by PFAS or “forever chemicals,” found, both in the flame retardant clothing that firefighters wear and the sprays they use to put out fuel-driven fires.

All this together is putting a heavy emotional toll on the profession, the report found: the firefighter suicide rate is estimated at nearly 150 percent again the baseline rate.

But “while the fire problem in America remains pernicious, I feel confident that with these developments, along with our continued partnership at the federal, state, and local level, we can prevent future fires, reduce suffering, and ensure that more people across the nation… have the tools to protect themselves and their families when disaster strikes,” Moore-Merrell said.

—Updated at 5:40 p.m.


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