Wildfires, urban development, natural disasters | Homeland Security Newswire

WildfiresHumans need to learn to co-exist with wildfires. Here’s how we can do it.

By Kendra R Chamberlain

Published 1 February 2018

As housing developments creep into wild and natural areas, proactive planning can reduce the risk of harm in the face of fire. Urban planning for wildland-urban interface (WUI) areas now centers on creating and maintaining development and building codes that incorporate the home ignition zone (HIZ) principles. These codes promote practices such as using fire-resistant building materials for siding and rooftops; maintaining “defensible space” by clearing dead leaves from rooftops, gutters and decks; trimming trees and removing vegetation that can fuel fires during the dry season; and governing subdivision design to include multiple routes by which residents can flee and fire-fighting equipment can enter. Collectively, these types of policies are loosely referred to as WUI codes.

In 1992, the city of Wenatchee, Washington, experienced a devastating wildfire that roared through a neighborhood, destroying more than 30 homes and burning over 3,000 acres (121 hectares) in a matter of days. It left the community shaken.

“It’s a terrible thing for the community to go through,” said Wenatchee economic development director Steven King.

The wildfires began in the shrub steppe and grasslands that surround the city. Recent development had pushed new housing into undeveloped areas, creating what ecologists refer to as a wildland-urban interface (WUI). WUI landscapes are common in the western half of the United States, but exist throughout the North and Southeast, too. Homes and other buildings constructed along such interfaces are becoming increasingly prone to fire disaster, thanks to a perfect storm of conditions: a warming climate that produces more fuel for wildfire combined with short-sighted development that ignores the risk inherent in wildfire-prone ecosystems. A growing body of wildfire experts and policy-makers now agree the vulnerability to disaster for these communities is ultimately a development planning issue — not a wildfire prevention issue.

Former U.S. Forest Service research scientist Jack Cohen, who spent his career studying wildland fire and helped develop the U.S. National Fire Danger Rating system, is quick to point out that wildfires in WUI zones are not only completely natural, they’re also unavoidable. “They have been an ecological factor for almost all of the ecosystems in North America in their development since the last ice age,” he says.

How can we better live with the reality of wildfires? Cohen recommends that preparedness policies expand beyond firefighting and vegetation burning in public lands toward measures that help ensure that homes located in WUI areas can actually survive a fire.

“The bottom line is that we need to get compatible with wildland fire occurrence,” he says. “We need to get proactive.”