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New Strategies for Communities in the Wildfire-Prone West

Based in Bozeman, Montana, Headwaters Economics is helping communities across the Western U.S. that are in the “wildland-urban interface” to develop fire resiliency in their planning processes.

Written by Jane Braxton Little Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A helicopter drops water on flames as they approach a home in the Santa Cruz Mountains near Loma Prieta, California, on Sept. 27, 2016. Communities throughout the West are working to find ways to plan for development in wildfire-prone areas.Josh Edelson/ AFP

Imagine this: a fire breaks out near a community at the edge of woods adjoining a forested wildland. Firefighters stand by, monitoring its progress. Flames creep along the ground, blazing up in small, sudden explosions that take out young trees and shrubs. Eventually – after days, weeks or months – the fire burns itself out. But no houses are destroyed and ecosystems are left revitalized.

It’s not a fantasy. Communities across the West are experimenting with tactics that help them plan to be more resilient to wildfire. By focusing on landscaping, building materials and where to locate subdivisions, it’s possible to reduce the risks of natural fire, said Kimiko Barrett, a research and policy analyst for Headwaters Economics.

She calls the results ‘firetopia’ – where communities live safely with wildfire on the landscape. “We can create fire-adapted communities by exploring alternative, more cost-effective and collaborative approaches that reduce wildfire risks,” Barrett says.

Headwaters, an independent, nonprofit research group based in Bozeman, Montana, is working to do exactly that in places as diverse as Austin, Texas and Missoula, Montana. They use a collaborative process, gathering together homeowners, land agencies and city officials to identify the steps each can take to reduce community wildfire risk.

Over the past decade an increase in fire size, severity and frequency, exacerbated by climate change, has generated numerous state and federal programs designed to prepare for, and reduce, the risks to homeowners and communities. Most have involved homeowner education and called for fire-adapted communities that coordinate on-the-ground tactics and other generalized responses.

A burned-out truck is pictured on a property destroyed by the Blue Cut wildfire in Phelan, California, on Aug. 17, 2016. (Jonathan Alcorn, AFP)

But no one really knew what a fire-resilient community looked like, says Barrett.

To find out, Headwaters began working with the U.S. Forest Service and several private partners in a multi-year process that culminated in 2014 with a test case in Summit County, Colorado. The result is Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire (CPAW), a program that provides communities with expertise and research to reduce local wildfire risks and costs.

To date, Headwaters has awarded grants to 13 communities in nine states to help them develop fire resiliency in their planning processes. The tools run the gamut, from local actions, taken by city and county governments, to administrative solutions, enacted by federal government, and to legislative actions, which can be taken only by Congress.

Much of the focus is on the wildland-urban interface (WUI) – undeveloped lands that abut towns and cities. In the West, 84 percent of the WUI has not yet been developed. Today, a significant portion of the annual firefighting budget is spent on protecting homes and structures, particularly those within wildfire-prone areas such as the WUI, says Barrett.

That leaves plenty of potential for thoughtful planning to identify wildfire risks and incorporate them into firetopia communities.

Take San Diego, a place intimately familiar with wildfire and its costs. Between 2000 and 2014, the city of San Diego experienced 29 fires covering more than 100 acres (40 hectares). Four of them were larger than 5,000 acres (2,000 hectares). The 2003 Cedar Fire remains the largest in California history, burning 273,246 acres (more than 110,000 hectares), destroying 2,820 homes and claiming 15 lives.

While most of San Diego’s land base is already developed, the city is skirted by a 500 linear-mile (800km) stretch of WUI – a total of 116 square miles (300 square km). Thirty percent of this area already has homes built on it. That, according to an analysis published in January by Headwaters, puts 42,000 properties at risk of wildfire.

San Diego has addressed this risk through a complicated set of brush management regulations designed both to reduce the local fire hazard and minimize impacts to undisturbed vegetation, protecting sensitive biological resources. Officials have also called upon California’s mandatory General Plan process to create specific codes for development, traffic patterns, conservation and open space.

The Headwaters report specifically lauded San Diego’s detailed approach for achieving something rare: the ability to regulate and enforce fire risk reduction on all properties threatened, not just those that may be undergoing development. Counties throughout California enforce fire-safe goals for all new developments by requiring two access roads and structural fire protection, which means new developments have to be within, or annexed to, a district providing fire protection for the houses.

It is far more difficult to impose measures to safeguard communities after they have already been built, says Barrett.

At the other end of the planning spectrum is the Siskiyou County community of Happy Camp. Situated at the north end of the state, on the Oregon border, it hosts a population of just over 1,000, compared to San Diego’s near-1.4 million residents.

Yet Happy Camp experienced almost as many wildfires as San Diego between 2000 and 2014, a total of 23 fires of 100 acres or larger burning within a 10-mile (16km) radius of town. Fourteen of them covered more than 5,000 acres.

The logging town on the Klamath River is surrounded by federal lands, most of them managed by the Forest Service. They make up the majority of Siskiyou County’s 519 square miles (1,344 square km) of WUI.

Like San Diego, county officials here can exercise fire-safety control over new developments through double-access roads and structural fire protection requirements, says Brett Walker, Siskiyou County’s senior planner. But unlike San Diego, they have no control over existing developments.

“All those older places out there built prior to modern minimum standards – that’s what worries me the most,” Walker says.

Yet when it comes to long-term planning around fire, Siskiyou County may have an advantage over a place like San Diego: nearly 95 percent of its WUI has no homes or structures. That gives planners more flexibility to design future communities that incorporate building codes and subdivision design standards to keep them safe from fire while allowing fire to burn in wildlands.

Headwaters’ program to assist planning around wildfire could be as easily adapted to a small town such as Happy Camp as to a city like San Diego, says Barrett: “This is not a one-size-fits-all process. We try to cater to the needs and priorities of the community.”

Ashland, Oregon, is among the places selected to receive Headwaters’ assistance and services next year. Other communities include Boise, Idaho and Bemidji, Minnesota, as well as rural counties in Washington, Colorado and Montana.

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