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All Places > Fire Break > Blog > 2011 > April

In my last two posts on my talk at the APA Conference, and on climate and human activity changes, I explained how the risks for wildfire especially in the WUI are increasing.

Speaking from my own experience as a land use planner, I used to think we were at the mercy of wildfire, waiting for a dry hot year to see what would burn next. And I believed that the solution was to throw a lot of resources to respond and suppress the fire, and that this was a job for emergency managers and firefighters. But as you might know from watching the news during a bad firestorm, there are times when response systems get overwhelmed when dozens or even of hundreds of homes become threatened at the same time, or it’s simply not safe for firefighters to go into a neighborhood to save it.

The good news is that there is a lot more we can do on the offensive side in terms of risk reduction and hazard mitigation planning when it comes to the WUI.  What often gets overlooked is the research to support how homes survive a forest, brush or grass fire through the use of specific building materials, landscaping techniques and site planning methods. The Firewise website gives a lot of tips. For example, with site planning, knowing the fire history of an area can help inform a community’s awareness of fire risk in that area. It’s typical for fires to occur in the same areas. Town Siting also plays a role with large landscape features – the placement of utility easements, roads and water features can be a good thing by creating firebreaks; natural water features can also provide resources for firefighters during response and suppression. We also know that flames can travel up to 16 times faster up a slope, so siting a house away from the edge of the slope can reduce flame contact as the fire moves up the terrain.  Firewise building and landscaping techniques can also increase the likelihood that a home will survive the threat of traveling embers or direct flame contact.

Although hazard mitigation planning can never guarantee 100% safety from future wildfires, there is a lot more we can do to reduce wildfire risk through better land use planning and development decisions, as well as supporting homeowners to make responsible landscaping and building decisions. In the face of a changing climate, we have the opportunity to increase our future resiliency to wildfire by keeping this hazard in mind as we plan our built environment.


As I mentioned in my last post, wildfire is not just a problem in the Western U.S.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the US Forest Service’s Climate Change Resource Center project states that nationally we will continue to see a higher number of above average temperatures during summer months. In plain English, more hot days! Here in the northeast we are already seeing an increased number of days per year that average over 90 degrees. Researchers also predict that summers will be longer, due to earlier springs and less snowmelt, which extends the fire season window by 10-30%. Changes in precipitation also impacts vegetation. In the south and northeast, wetter means more vegetation growth. The more grass there is in the spring, the more dry grass there is in the fall. Another point to make is that the more extreme winter storms we see the more downed debris in the spring. Finally, less snowmelt means the less likely reservoirs will go into the season full, which can strain fire suppression resources.

The point here is that hazards have relationships. You can’t have severe storms of one kind without a disruption to the entire natural cycle. What does all of this have to do with planning? We wouldn’t have a problem if these fires happened in some remote uninhabited area. But more and more of us like to live in what we call the wildland urban interface, otherwise known in our fire circles as the WUI. The WUI is where vegetation, people and structures mix. These are also the same areas where we can expect fires to occur – either naturally or otherwise.

Highway 31 Fire (2) 
The picture (above) was taken in South Carolina during the fire known as the Highway 31 fire that burned through a neighborhood in North Myrtle Beach in 2009. In total it destroyed 76 homes and was caused by a man who was burning a pile of garbage on his property. In fact many of our fires are human caused  as a result of debris burning, power lines, train tracks, and of course arson. The more of us who live “out there,” the more likely we’ll see an increase in fires from increased human activity. So it’s not JUST climate change that could be responsible for catastrophic fires in the future – it’s also because there are more of us!

Next up, I will go into more detail on how land use planners can play a major role in addressing wildfire hazard through site planning and development decisions – stay tuned! 


The Wildland Fire Management section is happy to announce it is sponsoring two breakout sessions during the NFPA Conference and Expo, June 12 -15 in Boston. Wildland Fire Mngmnt Section New Logo

The first will be held on Sunday, June 12 at 8:00 a.m. The topic of discussion is “ Brush and Wildland Fires: The Surprising Facts You Need to Know.” Then on Monday, June 13 at 11:00 a.m. we’ll present “Flames in the WUI:  How Wildfire Mitigation Planning Can Minimize Risk to People and Property.”

Visit our conference site to register and learn more about the sessions. Stay tuned for up-to-date information on the conference!

We hope to see you there.

--Dave Nuss, Director of Wildland Fire Operations Division

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