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Summit on Fire Prevention and Control

National Roundtable Testimony: Climate Change

Donna Black, Fire Chief, Duck (North Carolina) Fire Department and President/Board Chair, International Association of Fire Chiefs

I am honored to speak with you this morning.

As fire chief of Duck, North Carolina, I have witnessed the effects of climate change. I have seen hurricane-driven storm surges and wind endanger our residents and visitors and damage our buildings, beaches and roads.

As climate change drives extremes in weather, we see extremes emerging in our nation's fire problem. Due to climate change, more fire departments are responding to an increasing number of wildland urban interface and suburban conflagration fires.

The wildland urban interface is where suburban and rural areas merge with the wildland. About one-third of our population lives in this built environment. My state ranks fourth in terms of houses in the wildland urban interface, trailing only California, Texas and Florida.

Fires in the wildland and wildland urban interface are also larger and more destructive. The western states continue to experience significant impacts, including increases in fires so severe that they threaten forest recovery. These fires are not limited to the western U.S. — the Southeast may see large fires increase by 300 to 400% in the next 30 years.

Nor are these fires limited to a season. Colorado's Marshall Fire burned 6,000 acres, destroyed more than 1,000 homes and businesses and caused over $500 million in damages in December, well outside the traditional wildland fire season.

With suburban conflagration fires in the wildland urban interface, structural firefighters are not fighting a single-family house fire. Instead, they are responding to entire neighborhoods and communities under threat. The NFPA's needs assessment found that while 88% of structural fire departments respond to interface fires, only 50% have training on interface fires involving multiple structures.

This must change. We need funding to provide all firefighters — career and volunteer — with the training and equipment necessary to meet these challenges. Properly equipped and trained firefighters can conduct rapid-fire attack operations, reducing life and property loss, preserving scarce firefighting resources, and lessening environmental impacts.

Finally, water is a critical issue as droughts continue. Limited water for firefighting is not something that may happen someday. It is happening now, today. In July, firefighters in Pembroke, Massachusetts, could not use their fire hydrants because of a water shortage. Officials in Las Vegas, New Mexico, announced they had about 20 days of water left after ash and debris from the state's largest wildfire contaminated the supply. Without readily available water, firefighters may not be able to stop a small brush fire from becoming a disaster.

In closing, we cannot continue this cycle. Our current system, while much improved, cannot overcome climate change, population growth, and complex changes in both our society and the built environment.

We must prepare all firefighters for the climate-driven increase in wildfires in the wildland urban interface by providing them with the proper training and equipment.

Thank you again for this opportunity.