Addressing Wildfire Hazard through Site Planning and Development Decisions

Blog Post created by ryan.quinn Employee on Apr 20, 2011

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. http://nfpa.typepad.com/.a/6a00d8351b9f3453ef014e87f3c66f970d-pi

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.