A FEW YEARS AGO, I VISITED FIRE DEPARTMENTS near Albuquerque, New Mexico, to talk to them about wildfire preparedness. Along a two-lane road with epic views that wandered off to the mountains, I saw a billboard proclaiming a new housing development where the dream home you’ve always wanted could blossom, starting from the mid-200s.
This was former ranchland that was being transformed for commuters and retirees, unapologetic green-field development that was literally creating a wildland/urban interface (WUI) where cattle herds had previously kept the “fuel” low. While any number of regulatory tools or land use policy prescriptions can be offered as a way to mold such development, an important question is often never asked, and it’s one I asked myself as I drove along that road: Why are they building here?
Recently, Headwater Economics, an influential group in land use policy, held a summit of wildfire experts to tackle the issue of future communities in what they have concluded is the 84 percent of the WUI that is yet to be developed. A list of regulatory and planning solutions was offered that seeks to both frame development with regulatory prescriptions and influence planning decisions. Comparable work is occurring through the National Cohesive Wildfire Management Strategy, and we’re also seeing the promotion of best practices from jurisdictions that have successfully adopted ordinance and code regulations.
But even as such efforts offer beneficial regulatory and policy solutions, often lost is why communities in the WUI are shepherding this kind of potentially destructive development in the first place. How are economic development models, banking and loan requirements, construction practices, local tax models, comprehensive planning efforts, and consumer “demand” influencing the initial decision to build?
While solutions are offered that require regulatory adoption on development or that pass the true cost of fire on to localities, they don’t tackle with the same zeal the initial reasons why localities are hell-bent on doing it anyway. We know from the Fire Protection Research Foundation’s 2011 study, “Addressing Community Wildfire Risk: A Review and Assessment of Regulatory and Planning Tools,” that localities take an a-la-carte approach to adopting regulations and planning tools to fit their own wildfire needs.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Regulation can be good, and those in the government realm willing to enact positive change though persuasively prescribed regulation are often right.
In a previous life, I completed master’s degrees in urban planning and natural resources. The worlds of policy creation and research, I’ve realized, are expert at refining the possible, but also in seeing their solutions within a vacuum of their own design. They see what is best, but they can forget what influences reality on the ground—that a rural New Mexico county finally getting a taste of economic development and demographic influx isn’t thinking about wildfire. The challenge for those of us in wildfire policy is to reach urban planners, economic development specialists, and others with solutions before potential problems become real problems.
It’s our responsibility to identify and propose what works to enact desired change in the process. But we need to also consider what is influencing that initial local behavior by playing the long game and asking why communities make such decisions in the first place.