How Fire-Prone Communities Can Reduce Their Risk

Fire risk reduction strategy / SWA

16% of Americans now live in “designated fire hazard areas,” states SWA, a landscape architecture firm. And nearly 80 million U.S. properties face a “significant chance of exposure” to wildfires. Risks to both people and property are expected to dramatically increase by 2050.

To address this threat, SWA created an illustrated guide — Playbook for the Pyrocene, which offers 20 community planning and design strategies that can be applied by landscape architects, planners, homeowners, and developers.

The guide is authored by Jonah Susskind, senior research associate at SWA’s XL Research and Innovation Lab, and a team of researchers at the firm: Alison Ecker, Sydnie Zhang, Harrison Raine, Shannon Clancy, Dallas Ford, Peter Rustad, Rajpankaja Talukdar, and Ted Vuchinich.

“As wildfires become more frequent and destructive, we must rethink how communities are planned and designed. Fire is as complex as it is elemental, and there will never be a singular, tidy solution,” writes Alison Ecker, SWA, in the guide.

Instead SWA offers communities a way to layer solutions and apply practical, science-based guidelines and strategies to reduce risk at the community scale.

Fire risk reduction strategy / SWA

The guide synthesizes research findings from fire science, forestry, land use planning, and emergency management. And it builds on many years of wildfire work by SWA. “First, a set of landscape strategies developed with the community of Paradise, California after the 2018 Camp Fire. Then, a 945-acre planning study in Sonoma County, California. And, ultimately, a collaboration with the California Governor’s Office to develop statewide guidelines for wildfire planning,” Jackson Rollings, director of communications at SWA, explained.

“After the tragedy in Lahaina in Maui, there’s been a lot of reporting on rebuilding and recovery, but not nearly enough on actionable solutions and community-scale planning. This resource is intended to fill that knowledge gap and make these strategies plain and legible,” he added.

SWA argues that “supercharged fires” are growing worldwide. They are caused by “misguided” fire suppression policies; climate change; and unabated development in the wildland-urban interface (WUI).

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, WUI is a term for fire-prone lands where “human development meets or intermingles with undeveloped wildland or vegetative fuels.” With increased sprawl, the WUI is growing by 2 million acres each year.

Susskind delves into each cause of increased wildfire risk:

“Fire suppression policies resulted in far fewer acres burned, but over time, they inadvertently created an immense stockpile of unburnt fuels. As a result, today’s fires have become much larger and tend to burn much hotter than they would have naturally.”

“Eminent fire historian Stephen Pyne has dubbed our current epoch the Pyrocene because of the degree to which human manipulation of natural fire regimes have permanently altered Earth systems.”

Climate change is also fueling more destructive annual megafires. “Prolonged periods of record-breaking heat and drought have impacted fire-prone ecosystems by desiccating forests and grasslands and significantly increasing the length of annual fire seasons.”

And living in the WUI puts many people in the most immediate danger. “In recent decades, due to the housing-affordability crisis, NIMBYism, and local zoning restrictions, more affordable development has been pushed further away from city centers to comply with state mandates, and the WUI has become the fastest growing land use category in the US. Today, nearly 100 million people (about a third of the U.S. population) live in the WUI.”

Fire risk reduction strategy / SWA

In California, “more than 80 percent of California’s fire-related structure loss has occurred in these high-risk zones.” And if WUI development continues at a similar pace over the next thirty years, 20 million Californians could call these fire-prone landscapes home.

(California currently accounts for approximately half of properties at risk from wildfire. Other states with major fire hazards are Texas, Colorado, Arizona, Idaho, Washington, Oklahoma, Oregon, Montana, Utah, and many others.)

“We did not intend for the resource to influence high-level land-use planning decisions, which are usually much further upstream,” Susskind told us.

“The questions we are trying to answer here are not so much where to build, but rather how to build better within the context of wildfire broadly.”

Fire risk reduction strategy / SWA

A key part of that is learning how to design with ecosystems that are naturally dependent on fire.

“This means [designing] in ways that support fire as a critical part of ecosystem health and stability. Each of the strategies can be applied in order to reduce risks for frontline communities while simultaneously ensuring that fire can effectively support fire-dependent ecologies,” Susskind said.

Fire risk reduction strategy / SWA

SWA also sees the guide as just the start of a broader, collaborative effort to reduce risks.

“Landscape architects, urban designers, planners, and developers all have work to do to fill critical knowledge gaps. Best practices will need to be expanded and codified through professional licensure and institutional accreditation. Practitioners will need to have a firm grasp of the basic principles of fire behavior, vegetation management, and defensible space.”

“We will need to build and maintain partnerships with firefighting agencies, fire-safe councils, prescribed burn associations, and other key organizations. We will also need to advocate for more robust and ecologically informed wildfire policies that boost accountability for those making development decisions in high-risk areas.”

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