Editor’s note: David Burchfield is FAC Net’s Program Associate. Last September, David wrote a blog on the National Institute of Technology (NIST)’s Hazard Mitigation Methodology (HMM). In this follow-up piece, David reflects on how the social connections between neighbors may be the most important piece in ensuring the HMM’s practical applicability.

The Hazard Mitigation Methodology – where do we go from here?

How do we think about shared wildfire risk as a shared problem when we also consider how the concept of private property has created a false sense of individualized responsibility? While you may have conducted hardening and fuels mitigation on your own property, your neighbor’s shoddy outbuilding near your property line could undermine all your efforts; it’s a collective problem whether or not we often act like it. 

This is the question raised in my September 2023 blog that began with a look at the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Hazard Mitigation Methodology (HMM). The HMM goes into great detail explaining all of the technical steps that should be taken to properly mitigate against wildfire risk to structures across parcels – not just within one – but it intentionally eschews political or funding applicability considerations. As lead author Alex Maranghides said in my interview with him last year: “This is not designed to be an approach a homeowner takes [alone]. It’s designed to be an approach taken by a community… It has to be thought of as exposure-centric, not parcel-centric.” But how? 

Were we to comprehensively apply the NIST HMM, there are a couple operationally-oriented approaches to community-scale hardening that seem obvious:

  1. We need to rethink private property entirely, pool all our assets, and assign mitigation and hardening to the People through the State. 
  2. Through gradual (or even relatively quick) adoption of innovative codes, adequate funding, assistance, and enforcement, we can move WUI communities closer to HMM-aligned hardening. As HMM co-author Steven Hawks notes, HMM standards have already been adopted in some California Office of Emergency Services (CalOES) efforts, specifically where one community has received FEMA funding to apply some community-wide hardening efforts and the state is considering implementing some HMM aspects in new coding regulations.

Whether the first option sounds like a utopian dream or a hellish nightmare to you, I think we can all agree that it’s extremely unlikely to happen. Regarding the second option, gradual bureaucratic shifts toward desirable policy and enforcement are nothing new, should certainly be sought, and are also so often too slow and too small to help at the scale we need on time. Not only is the familiar political process frustratingly slow and often ineffective, sometimes it feels like it just misses the point. When we talk about property losses to wildfire, we are talking about more than financial investments, land-based economies, and bottom lines: we are talking about people’s lives as they are framed by those concerns. We are talking about cherished homeplaces, dreams demolished, and communities forever changed or erased. This is about more than policy and money, and frankly, I’m tired of viewing the problems of shared risk only through those terms. In a world of increasing commodification, is there a way to cut through all the red tape and dollar signs to a different way of relating to each other that transcends these reductive ways of seeing ourselves, our neighbors, and the world we live in? Recently I learned of such a concept that helps – at least a little.


I recently learned of the concept of “neighboring”, which helps to return the issue to where it all starts, within the personal and the communal. I learned about neighboring when talking to my new friend, Maggie Hanna – Director of the Central Grasslands Roadmap and fourth generation rancher on her family’s property near Pueblo, Colorado. Maggie explained to me “no one can afford the full time workforce to do all the big jobs themselves, so we have to help each other with things like gathering livestock and branding.” While our modern world rushes toward commodifying every aspect of our lives, ranchers in Maggie’s neighborhood are still helping each other in a loose, informal exchange of services on the basis of mutual need – whether that’s lending the cowboys to push the cattle or cooking the meal for the midday break. 

As Maggie put it, way out in El Paso County, there is no Uber Eats to bring you food when you’re sick – that’s your neighbor, friend, family, or nobody at all. Very few of us can afford to pay our way out of every problem, and the truth of that is tangibly present not only in the lives of ranchers like Maggie, but for anyone in the Wildland Urban Interface. Indeed, when we talk about home and property hardening, we return again and again to the problem of costs. Fire-resistant materials are expensive for retrofitting. Equipment rentals and contractor fees for fuels treatment are obscene. While we wait around for codes, enforcement, and funding to catch up with the need, our WUI communities are still burning largely unhardened. In another blog, we’ve covered how ranchers are banding together in some western states to form Rangeland Fire Protection Associations to fight fires, but how might we adapt the ranching concept of neighboring for community-scale home hardening anywhere in the WUI?

Neighborliness, community, and the WUI

I think the problem of community-scale home hardening begins well before the questions of funding or codes come up, but in how we seem to have lost some of our sense for mutual need, aid, and accountability between neighbors. This cannot be legislated or funded. It is a spiritual problem of American life documented by scholars like Robert Putnam. Putnam’s famous 2000 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community documents the erosion of common life in America through the lens of lost bowling leagues. American membership in civic groups that foster connection across common socio-economic and political divisions has steadily declined since the 1960s. Fewer and fewer of us encounter neighbors at the bowling league, church, or even the grocery store as online shopping and self-checkout have come to dominate commerce. 

We have fewer opportunities to see each other on the basis of mutual need as isolation grows and it becomes easier to associate only with folks like ourselves. It shows up in the ways that we think about solving common problems, including cross-parcel wildfire risk mitigation in the WUI. While we decry the corruption, division, and ineffectiveness of our political systems, we simultaneously look almost solely to those same systems to solve our shared problems. What can we do as neighbors to help each other before it even needs to be a political or bureaucratic issue to solve?

What can each of us do in our communities to increase a sense of mutuality and in getting the work done before codes and funding even need to catch up? We see glimmers of hope here and there, in the growing Prescribed Burn Association movement (see examples from the Great Plains states and California), the growth of FireSafe Councils, the Neighborhood Ambassador Approach in Colorado, and other community-based efforts to solve the problem from the bottom up. But what else are we missing? Where can we grow in our neighboring efforts around the WUI in perhaps even more informal, frequent, and mutual ways?

Can we take a cue from the ranching community to better understand ourselves beyond our property lines? Can we look for more ways to connect, support, and aid each other beyond and before commodification and codification? Truly, I don’t think we have another option. With the wildfire crisis only growing, the tangibility and presence of the mutual need is as real for us in WUI communities as it is for the ranchers of El Paso County. 


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