Not Where, But How
New tools to help ensure development in fire-prone areas is done right
NFPA Journal®, May/June 2013
It’s common in the wildfire safety profession to hear people say, “It’s not if a wildfire will enter a community, but when.” I’d like to propose another truism for fire-prone areas: “It’s not where development occurs, but how.”
The questions of where and how are central to our consideration of community development, future risk, and the changing dynamics of the wildland/urban interface (WUI). Creative planning solutions need to focus not just on where future development occurs, but on how it accounts for wildfire risk as it is built or retrofitted.
For starters, consider the impact of a changing climate. Earlier this year, the National Climatic Data Center reported that 2012 was the warmest year on record, since 1895, in the contiguous United States. Key findings from a Climate Central report last year reveal how these temperature changes affect wildfire activity. The report found that, since 1970, the biggest wildfire years were typically those with above-average spring and summer temperatures. Rising temperatures mean that the burn season is two and a half months longer than it was 40 years ago.
These changes bring more uncertainty for wildfire-prone areas. They mean that tree species and other vegetation will change, longer periods of drought will emerge, and suppression budgets will soar if we don’t find better solutions to address this issue. The National Research Council reports that for every degree Celsius (1.8oF) of temperature increase, the size of the area burned in the western U.S. could quadruple.
More acres burned annually also means that more communities will be threatened by wildfire activity. Communities with a WUI — an area where vegetation and development mix together, typically on the urban fringe — will have to consider with even more foresight the type of development they are willing to allow. Even so, it’s unlikely that communities can steer all development away from high-risk wildfire areas. The scale and scope of these areas across the country is extensive and will only increase as temperatures continue to rise.
But there are ways to address the uncertainty through better land use planning and regulation. To accomplish that, NFPA has been working on resources to equip land-use planners and other professionals engaged in different forms of development with the right information. Last year, we released a study that assessed how a dozen communities in the United States were approaching the implementation of wildfire regulations (see nfpa.org/regulatorytools). A follow-up report provides planning professionals and regulators with best practices to address wildfire risk at different scales — community, neighborhood/subdivision, individual property, and structure. Appropriate to each scale is a set of WUI tools ranging from community overlay hazard zoning to approaches that address building and roofing materials, fences, decks, and other structural attachments.
A number of codes are at the user’s disposal for implementing such WUI tools and include a jurisdiction’s building, fire, land use, and subdivision codes. The WUI is not a fixed place until we develop it, and tools such as these can help us think strategically about how we do it.
These and other NFPA resources, including the Safer from the Start DVD and pamphlet, provide needed guidance on how to address development in a way that better prepares us for climate change and wildfire risk. For more information, visit firewise.org and click on the “designers/developers” box.
Molly Mowery is program manager for Fire Adapted Communities and International Outreach.