Does Regulation Work?
Simple questions, thorny answers, and a new NFPA study on community wildfire risk
NFPA Journal®, March/April 2012
When I’m on the road giving presentations about community wildfire risk, I often get a question that sounds something like this: Why don’t we just use regulations to solve our wildland/urban interface problems? In other words, if we stop people from building there, or if we make them build with these materials and remove this kind of vegetation, then we wouldn’t be losing all of these homes and businesses and lives to wildfires.
It’s a great question, but unfortunately the answer isn’t always straightforward. Ask any land-use planner who has tried to implement regulations, and you’ll hear multiple reasons why this solution isn’t always the most preferred path. Political will can be fickle. Private property rights are strong. Personnel resources necessary to draft and enforce technical regulations are limited. And whose responsibility is it, anyway? Who in the community must ultimately answer for wildland/urban interface issues? Although planners dictate land use, fire marshals and chiefs are held accountable for protecting life and property, and the code official is often responsible for construction decisions. In the wildfire world, simple questions often produce complex answers.
At NFPA’s wildfire division, however, these complications intrigue us. Instead of shying away from the more difficult aspects of these issues, we wanted more research to support our answers — we didn’t want to rely solely on anecdotal evidence. We envisioned a study that would examine the overlapping topics of land use, regulation, and community wildfire hazard. The Fire Protection Research Foundation agreed to manage the project, and for the past year it has worked with a national consulting firm, Clarion Associates, to review and assess the effectiveness of regulatory planning tools designed to address community wildfire risk. The consultants were also asked to communicate lessons learned for other communities to consider when implementing wildfire regulations.
In the just-completed report, some of the most interesting findings revealed that most communities adopted their first set of regulations in response to a major wildfire. In other words, there had to be a strong driver to initiate this type of approach. In addition, public support of regulations increased when a community had strong public education efforts in place, such as Firewise Community initiatives.
The study also looked at how communities use NFPA standards related to wildfire, such as NFPA 1141, Fire Protection Infrastructure for Land Development in Wildland, Rural, and Suburban Areas, or NFPA 1144, Reducing Structure Ignition Hazards from Wildland Fire. The report found that many communities look at these standards for guidance, although they often choose to adopt only selected language to suit their local needs.
Most communities also agreed that the two most important regulatory tools for reducing wildland/urban interface risk are defensible space and fire-resistant roofs. Ironically, communities reported that defensible space is the most difficult regulation to enforce on a long-term basis. It’s these and other findings that NFPA will be further exploring.
In the meantime, the full report is available online at the Research Foundation’s website, nfpa.org/foundation. I also invite you to attend our annual NFPA Conference & Expo in Las Vegas in June, which will include a panel session devoted to this topic. Stay tuned to learn more about how NFPA will use the study to help communities successfully implement regulations in the wildland/urban interface.
Molly Mowery is program manager for Fire Adapted Communities and International Outreach.