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Podcast

Wildland Urban Interface

Posted: May 19, 2022

On this episode of The USFA Podcast, staff from the U.S. Fire Administration discuss the wildland urban interface and how USFA partnerships help structural firefighters prepare for wildland fires.

The USFA Podcast

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Transcript

Welcome to The USFA Podcast, the official podcast of the United States Fire Administration. I'm your host, Teresa Neal. This month, we're talking about wildfires, specifically the wildland urban interface.

The wildland urban interface, or WUI, is the zone of transition between unoccupied land and human development. It is the line, area or zone where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland or vegetative fuels. More than 46 million residences in 70,000 communities in the United States are at risk for WUI fires. The WUI area continues to grow by approximately 2 million acres per year.

There are several ways that the USFA is currently addressing this growing threat. We work with the National Interagency Fire Center and are part of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. These partnerships strengthen our ability to address wildland fires. We provide training resources on addressing wildland fires through the National Fire Academy, and we provide resources to individuals on how they can create a community wildfire protection plan to assess risk and to create action plans in case of wildfire emergencies.

On this episode, we'll be joined by Aitor Bidaburu, USFA's representative with the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, and Nicole LaRosa, who is management and program analyst for the U.S. fire administrator. So, join us as we discuss the evolving threat of the wildland urban interface and how USFA is addressing these risks.

Teresa Neal: Welcome, Aitor. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Aitor Bidaburu: Hi, Teresa. Well, I’m a wildland firefighter. I've spent my entire career working for the federal government in various wildland fire positions, starting with the Forest Service early in my career at the field level, and moving to NIFC, with the Bureau of Land Management, working in the training program there. And back in 2008, I started with the U.S. Fire Administration where I work now.
Teresa Neal: Great. And so, USFA has a position at the National Interagency Fire Center. Can you explain what NIFC is?
Aitor Bidaburu: Sure. So NIFC — I think sometimes there's misconceptions about what NIFC is. It's important to also discuss what NIFC is not. But NIFC is basically — it's a place. It is not an agency. So, it is a place located in Boise, Idaho. NIFC stands for the National Interagency Fire Center. It's a federal installation that's interagency in nature. There's 10 agencies representing state, federal, local government, tribal governments out there that have wildfire programs.
Teresa Neal: So, can you explain how USFA became part of NIFC?
Aitor Bidaburu: Sure. So, USFA became part of NIFC back in 2003. I think it's important to discuss the context in the country at the time. So, we all remember 9/11, which occurred in 2001, and there were a lot of efforts nationally to try to come up with a system, basically an incident command system, you know, for FEMA and how it responded to 9/11 supporting that incident. And then there were other incidents that — a series of bad hurricanes that followed that incident. Katrina was in 2005. And so, there was a lot of attention being spent by FEMA and other agencies, and they really looked to the wildfire community to see how they responded to hazards and how they organized. So, it was pretty instrumental in the model that we have today, I think.
Teresa Neal: So, USFA is also part of the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Can you explain what NWCG is and how that strengthens the fire and EMS?
Aitor Bidaburu: Sure. So, I think it's important to talk about the NWCG mission. The NWCG mission is to enable all federal, state, local, tribal, territorial agencies and organizations — provides them — and enable them to operate, respond to fire in an interoperable way. One of the principles behind wildfire — really, response preparedness — in the country is that no one agency has it all. We have to rely and depend upon all the partner agencies. And NWCG really creates that interoperable environment.
Aitor Bidaburu: You know, if you think about it as a portfolio, NWCG has an extensive portfolio when it comes to training, when it comes to equipment standards, personnel standards. It provides a lot of operational guidelines and a credentialing system so that when people mobilize across the country in response to wildland fire, they know what they're getting. People meet a minimum standard in terms of qualifications, that knowledge and skill set. NWCG provides that platform.
Aitor Bidaburu: And at the heart of NWCG is the interagency nature of developing those standards. So, instrumental to that is really having a standing NWCG committee that oversees that portfolio. And that portfolio includes a publication management system; it includes 14 major subcommittees that address different components of not just fire response, but also fire prevention, fuels management, all kinds of safety procedures and things of that nature.
Teresa Neal: And can you explain the wildland fire governance system?
Aitor Bidaburu: Sure. Well, at the top, we have WFLC, which is the Wildland Fire Leadership Council. WFLC is really comprised of very high-level agency leadership. You know, it could be your undersecretaries for Department of Interior and Ag. For us, it's our administrator that's a primary member on WFLC, Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell. And there's other elected officials on there. There's governors represented on WFLC. There's fire chiefs represented on WFLC. There's many organizations that really are key stakeholders in the national governance system for wildland fire.
Aitor Bidaburu: The intent of that group and the purpose of that group is to really provide an overall strategy for wildland fire and really provide a forum or a platform to coordinate policy and really look at opportunities to reduce redundancy and to come to program alignment really when it comes to wildland fire policy nationally.
Aitor Bidaburu: As you move down from WFLC, you have some intermediate groups like the Fire Executive Council, which is largely your national-level program, directors on the federal side. USFA is represented on that as well. And also, you have our U.S. Forest Service and DOI and all the bureaus within those agencies that have fire responsibility.
Aitor Bidaburu: And then finally, when you get down to the actual organization that provides that interoperability, we've already talked about it quite a bit, but that's NWCG. So, NWCG is where the programmatic specialists serve on those standing committees that I discussed briefly earlier, and that's really where a lot of the products, the systems, the coordinating systems, are managed and developed. And, you know, NWCG is an interagency body which, you know, oversees that portfolio and provides recommendations to those other higher-level organizations that I mentioned.
Teresa Neal: And how do these partnerships align with USFA’s mission?
Aitor Bidaburu: Well, if you look at USFA’s mission, you know, to strengthen and support the fire and EMS service out there, I think there's really a lot of alignment. You know, we look at our 4 stars for agency, you know, data collection, and analysis. These organizations, like NWCG, really collect a lot of data, and it really provides us with a database that is very valuable. You know, without being able to tap into that, it would be very difficult to solve these problems if we can't define what the problems are. So, data collection and analysis is a key component of, you know, NWCG, Fire Executive Council and WFLC.
Aitor Bidaburu: We look at research and technology and we look at the opportunities that we have with our partner agencies and the research branches that, you know, the U.S. Forest Service, the Department of Interior, and various agencies have within those governance structures. It really is an opportunity to bring to the table some of the opportunities we have with research programs that we do in the USFA. You know, we reach out to academia, we reach out to, you know, DHS Science and Technology. We have opportunities to bring those efforts forward to organizations like NWCG where they may not know about those efforts going on the DHS side.
Aitor Bidaburu: So, we're really that bridge between some of the wildland agencies and efforts that occur between, you know, the research branches. We look at training. Training is a huge opportunity where we could bridge those targeted efforts really to strengthen and build a stronger, you know, public fire service. You know, of course, we've got a long-standing relationship with NWCG training and our National Fire Academy. Those efforts really reach a broader audience. You know, believe it or not, some parts of the country just aren't familiar with NWCG. And so, you know, through our work with the National Fire Academy, working very closely with NWCG, we can really leverage a lot of the wildland fire training products out there and reach a much broader audience than what NWCG might be able to reach on its own.

… arguably the wildfire risk in the country right now has got to be right in the very top hazards facing the nation.

Aitor Bidaburu: We look at public education. You know, we have a lot of opportunities to work with these governance structures when it comes to messaging the wildfire risk to the public. You know, arguably the wildfire risk in the country right now has got to be right in the very top hazards facing the nation. And our opportunity to really leverage some of the products that we work with NWCG on, like the community wildfire protection plans. You know, the representation folks in our agency have with the NWCG WUI committee. There's just a lot of vetting of materials, a lot of interagency work and buy-in that goes into those products and how we message those products. So, there's just a lot of cross-pollination that can occur between our specialized staff at the USFA and some of these governance structures that exist on the NWCG side.
Teresa Neal: Great. So, I want to jump forward, and I wanted to ask you, what is the wildland urban interface and why is that such an area of emphasis for USFA?
Aitor Bidaburu: Well, the wildland urban interface is really one of the fastest-growing developments in this country. It is really that space where the wildland meets the developed land, and it's the built environment. It's where the built environment is moving into, historically, you know, open country, forested lands, areas with a lot of potential for fire occurrence and fire spread. These areas oftentimes have had, you know, natural fire in them, sometimes started accidentally, sometimes started by lightning. And now that you have development in these areas, you know, you've got a tremendous amount of homes being built in these areas, and largely, the responsibility for responding to this new risk in this area rests with, you know, state and local agencies.

… this is really an area (the WUI) where we're seeing a lot more activity, a lot more burden being placed on … the structural organizations, the fire departments. … this is really an area where we need to bridge the gap between the structural community and the wildland community.

Aitor Bidaburu: And so, this is really an area where we're seeing a lot more activity, a lot more burden being placed on, you know, the structural organizations, the fire departments. And so, this is really an area where we need to bridge the gap between the structural community and the wildland community. And it's a great opportunity for the U.S. Fire Administration to really drill down, identify some of these problems, and try to figure out what these solutions are really within the framework of some of, you know, our agency missions and goals, and that's, you know, in the realms of data collection, analysis, research and technology, training, and public education.
Teresa Neal: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Aitor Bidaburu: No. I just, you know, want to thank you. This is my first podcast, Teresa.
Teresa Neal: Mine too, Aitor.
Aitor Bidaburu: I'm sure I'm gonna learn a lot. I'm sure I'm gonna cringe when I hear this recording of myself talking about this stuff, but I really don’t have a lot more. I think that, you know, bringing some attention to the wildfire space is going to be critical going forward. And I think, you know, we talk a lot about how, you know, different tools, like technology, training, can really help — and it will.
Aitor Bidaburu: But one of the biggest challenges we have is really getting the public to understand the risk that they’re putting themselves into when they move out into these wildlands. I think the public messaging and public education really cannot be underestimated in terms of how important that would be. So that people can learn really to take action and have some actionable items that we really, I think, do a good job of sharing. I’d be remiss if I didn't mention our WUI resources that we have on the USFA website. There's some great resources and opportunities there to help individual homeowners. So, I think that would be an important takeaway for folks to be aware of that information.
Teresa Neal: Great. Thanks, Aitor.
Aitor Bidaburu: Okay. Thanks, Teresa.
Teresa Neal: That was great.
Nicola LaRosa: I'm ready when you are, Teresa.
Teresa Neal: Okay. So, 3, 2, 1… Hi, Nicole, thanks for joining us. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Nicola LaRosa: Hi, my name is Nicola LaRosa. I work in the U.S. Fire Administration as an advisor to our U.S. fire administrator. And I am really passionate about wildland urban interface community risk reduction. I have spent the better part of the last, say, 5 or 6 years focusing on explicitly this, and I look a lot now in USFA for wildland urban interface issues at the national level, in particular, for the fire-service partners that we work with at the state and local, territory, and tribal level.
Teresa Neal: Great. And what resources does USFA have to help partners address their wildland urban interface risk?
Nicola LaRosa: So, we actually have in USFA a full complement of various resources that span many different sorts of capacity and sector areas for our fire-service partners. One of those is a comprehensive website that we recently, in the last year, have refreshed to reorganize the materials and make it more user friendly — create a more streamlined user experience. And there's so much available on there, and a lot of additional content has been added and continues to be added.
Nicola LaRosa: And this is a whole-of-USFA effort with a constant sort of flow of new materials being provided and available. Some of that is tools and resources for our fire-service partners to be able to help them think through and plan for their community risk reduction efforts, their prevention and response efforts, as well as how to engage their whole community partners.
Nicola LaRosa: So really, we're focused on how could we help create tools and resources that help our fire-service partners on the ground be able to more easily implement their community risk reduction programs? And hopefully, we’re helping kind of fill a need for them to try to help alleviate the burden for them of having to create those materials themselves. Some of this includes a whole host of multimedia and communication tools, social media handouts, pictographs for use before, during and after a fire so that they can more easily and quickly get some communications out to their whole community partners as well as support their community engagement in prevention and risk reduction programs.
Nicola LaRosa: In addition — and this is something that I consider one of our most amazing sort of resources that we provide — available is a very comprehensive fire-adapted community resource site. And the fire-adapted communities is 1 of the 3 goals of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy.
Teresa Neal: Great. Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Nicola LaRosa: So, we really did lean heavily into how we were going to be able to support fire-adapted community resourcing. We work very closely with our other federal partners, as well as nonfederal partners, to ensure that we're developing these in a collaborative environment and that there's consistent messaging. Some of what we have available on that site are 7 steps to creating a fire-adapted community, development of community wildfire protection plans, a template for a community wildfire protection plan, just as a source of a launchpad. The community is, of course, free to adapt that to their unique needs. In addition to all that, we also have a full complement of training and education curriculum available through our National Fire Academy programs.
Teresa Neal: And how do the NFA training and education programs tie into preparing the fire service to respond to WUI events?
Nicola LaRosa: So, in USFA, training and education is, in our sort of perspective, one of the most significant foundations for helping our state, local, tribal and territory fire-service partners build their capacity and their capability for community protection, prevention, response and risk reduction. We pick that approach because there are many events where there are not federal resources that may be available. And so, we're trying to help make sure our partners have the support and tools and training that they need to be able to help them manage their events, and also, regardless of whether there's actually federal resources made available.
Nicola LaRosa: In our training and education curriculum in the National Fire Academy, we have many courses that are actually available for wildland urban interface, in particular. And this is to help both fire-service partners and their allied professions, so that could be community planners or community organizers who have work at their community level that is directly connected to supporting wildland urban interface community risk reduction.
Nicola LaRosa: So what we have available is a full span of wildland urban interface courses that are explicitly looking at command and control, community risk reduction, a specific course for developing community wildfire protection plans and incorporating broad whole community engagement in that effort, fire-adapted community methods and strategies to build fire-adapted communities in the wildland urban interface, prefire planning courses, and building community coalitions, as well as some very strategic operational aspects such as planning for wildland urban interface event evacuations.
Nicola LaRosa: And as I mentioned, you know, this is really intended to help build the capacity and capability for our fire-service partners. And also, I want to make sure we emphasize allied professionals, who are engaged in community risk reduction in the wildland urban interface, are able to take these NFA courses as well.
Teresa Neal: And how is USFA innovating to help the fire service prepare themselves and their communities for wildfire risk?
Nicola LaRosa: So, one of the ways that USFA is sort of looking forward is building out our capacity to deliver more of the training and education curriculum associated with wildland urban interface community risk reduction. We're looking at how we can explore some of our lessons learned during the last couple of years in the pandemic environment to streamline and increase accessibility of virtual courses as well as ways to increase our capacity within USFA for more point-of-sight delivery of courses at the state, local, tribal and territorial level.
Nicola LaRosa: We're also working closely with partners on ways to develop more innovative communication tools using cutting-edge technology such as augmented reality or additional communication opportunities that we can really take advantage of to lean into providing more effective and impactful communication opportunities and tools for fire-service partners to use on the ground in their community engagement.
Nicola LaRosa: And that's really a part of our ongoing strategic planning on communication approaches to building broader awareness of the trends and emerging science and technology that is coming forward from research partners. For fire-service issues, this also includes ways that we can help make sure that we're using our USFA voice to broadcast more stories about the successful implementation of community wildfire risk reduction programs, and also ways that we're able to bring emerging science and research to their awareness so that our partners on the ground, who may not have time always to read the research journals, are able to get a sense of what's available.
Nicola LaRosa: I would also add that we have a library on the National Emergency Training Center campus where the National Fire Academy is located. And also, our library is also available for folks to check out and access research and education materials and additional resources and tools that can help them, I guess, have access to the information, if that's not something that their community is able to sustain.
Teresa Neal: Yeah, and the librarians are happy to help with research projects as well. And they just need to call them or do an interlibrary loan for any materials that we have. You mentioned emerging science and research and WUI risk. And how is USFA translating that into tools for the fire service?
Nicola LaRosa: So, some of the ways that we really lean heavily into that is by working with our research partners, both federal and nonfederal, to help make sure that we're connecting the dots. This is what the emerging science and research is saying: how we can turn that into evidence-based guidance that can be operationalized on the ground.
Nicola LaRosa: And a really good example of this is we work very, very closely with our partners in the NIST WUI research group to help make sure that we're bringing their research and science forward and translating that into practical implementation. That includes some of their research about how, say, structure separation, the distance in between different structures, either at a community level or at a parcel level, fits within their risk profile for a wildland urban interface incident as well as how they have done a very, very thorough analysis of both actual events that have taken place as well as their recommended research-based hazard mitigation methodologies.
Nicola LaRosa: So how to marry up the safe fuels management side of wildfire risk reduction with their built environment, building hardening, defensible space, the response capacity and the role of responders in community risk reduction. And we’re really taking a lot of that research and helping turn it into a more user-friendly, I guess, easier customer experience and more accessible on the ground sort of guidance document.
Nicola LaRosa: And we also work with additional partners and some other DHS agencies, as well as other federal agency partners, to try to make sure that we're keeping track of emerging technologies. This includes things like sensors for alerts and warnings or forecasting systems, research related to firefighter health and safety, PPE performance under different conditions, as well as the ways climate change is going to fit within the future risk profiles and forecasting and planning for future risk.
Nicola LaRosa: So, we really are deeply engaged across the board with a wide variety of partners. And we emphasize our role in trying to make sure that we are connecting this information, and we are translating it into something user-friendly for our partners and our stakeholders who are operationalizing on the ground and really taking ownership of their community risk.
Teresa Neal: And how does USFA engage with national leadership, you know, fire-service leadership on these WUI issues?
Nicola LaRosa: So, we do work very closely with many major national groups who focus on how to develop building codes and standards, zoning, and also ways that those can be incorporated into community design and community planning and the overall risk reduction efforts that are happening at the state and local level. As well as we work in USFA very closely with national-level leadership groups who really focus on how to incorporate more community risk reduction on wildland urban interface issues, and ways to streamline and align the federal resources that are available and tie together the sort of natural resource aspects of wildfire risk reduction with the built environment aspects of community risk reduction.
Nicola LaRosa: So bringing together that sort of tie between where the built environment starts to become the natural environment — where the risk may be present in the natural environment — and making sure that we're bringing forward our fire-surface partners’ concerns and challenges and issues, and that we're bringing those into those conversations so that there's good attention that's being paid to wildfire risk reduction, both from a natural resource environment — where say the fuels management is a really critical component to the community risk reduction emphasis — as well as how that connects into the built environment where the firefighters are working to protect their communities and their properties and building their prevention and community risk reduction programs.
Teresa Neal: Great. Is there anything else you'd like to add, Nicole?

… the wildland urban interface is really the frontier for the fire service. It is the emerging new frontier of risk that is being managed.

Nicola LaRosa: You know, I would add 1 thing that I think is really important about the wildland urban interface, and I’m actually going to borrow from our U.S. fire administrator on this. One of the things that she has sort of noted about it, is that the wildland urban interface is really the frontier for the fire service. It is the emerging new frontier of risk that is being managed. And I’d like to emphasize that, you know, there are a lot of communities that have a high degree of wildfire risk and, you know, this is probably one of the most critical issues for our nation to think about in terms of how to manage natural hazard risk and looking forward both for today and also looking forward for future conditions and future risks that we may experience and going forward.
Teresa Neal: Great. Thank you, Nicole. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us.
Nicola LaRosa: Thank you, Teresa. It's been really wonderful. Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity.
Teresa Neal: Anytime.

Thank you for listening to “The USFA Podcast,” and thank you to our guests, Aitor Bidaburu and Nicole LaRosa, for joining us today. Want to learn more about wildland urban interface? Visit usfa.fema.gov/wui and check out our guide on creating a community wildfire protection plan. We hope you enjoyed our conversations today. Don't forget to subscribe to our show on Apple or Google.

We share new episodes every third Thursday of each month. You can join the conversation about fire safety by emailing your questions and sharing your stories to fema-usfapodcast@fema.dhs.gov. That's fema-usfapodcast@fema.dhs.gov. On next month's episode, we'll be talking about research with Bill Troup, chief of the Emergency Response and Support Branch. Until then, you can visit us at usfa.fema.gov for more information. Goodbye.