167 Pages Posted: 29 Sep 2016 Last revised: 11 Feb 2017
Date Written: September 28, 2016
The price of wildfire has never been higher. Why? And what can local communities do about it?
One way to measure the price of wildfire is the dollars spent on suppression alone. In 1995, fire made up 16 percent of the U.S. Forest Service’s annual appropriation budget; in 2015, wildfire consumed more than 50 percent of the agency’s budget, a benchmark reflective of steadily rising costs. A recent study of wildfires in Wyoming found that protecting just one isolated home can add $225,000 to the overall cost of fighting a fire. But the price of fire is also told in lost recreational opportunities, scarred landscapes adjacent to city centers, loss of wildlife habitat, presence of invasive species, and increasingly, after-effects such as flood and landslides, that can cause even greater long-term harm to a community that the initial fire.
This guide is focused on wildfires that occur in the wildland-urban interface, or WUI. The WUI is both a sociological and legal term that is fluid based upon context; however, a common definition used is that the WUI is where “humans and their development meet or intermix with wildland fuel.”
Although fewer wildfires occur in the WUI compared to timberlands or rangelands, they are of increasing concern for several reasons. First, WUI fires are expensive to fight. Six of the ten most expensive fires in the past 100 years were WUI fires. Further, the WUI is relatively undeveloped. By one account, just 14 percent of the WUI is developed, leaving a vast potential region of growth that, if developed without wildfire in mind, could yield staggering costs as the West grows. Finding ways to prevent “locking in” long-term, high cost development patterns, while still encouraging such development and growth, is a threshold issue facing Western property owners, taxpayers, and governments.
The amount of science and technology dedicated to addressing wildfire in the WUI issues is substantial: decades of research provide a rich array of knowledge about fire from which to draw. The missing piece of the puzzle is the planning and legal framework that would apply that knowledge to protect property and lives from fire. How can we use planning, law and incentives to implement what we already know about wildfire and keep our communities safe?
The proposal offered by this guide is a conceptual framework that local communities — governmental and non-governmental — can use over time. The framework, which this guide calls the “WUI Wildfire Planning Process,” consists primarily of a four-step, cyclical planning process that revolves around the inter-governmental National Cohesive Strategy Vision and Goals for wildfire, and is supported at all times by education and outreach.
Although little known outside of the fire community, the National Cohesive Strategy Goals are simple, but important, goals established through a five year planning process (2009 to 2014) in which federal agencies, state, tribal and local governments, as well as non-governmental partners, built a common vision of how the country could address wildfire. The three goals of the Cohesive Strategy are maintaining landscapes; developing fire-adapted communities; and developing a multi-jurisdictional wildfire response based upon risk-based decisionmaking. These Cohesive Strategy Goals are the core around which the WUI Wildfire Planning Process revolves.
The four active steps of the WUI Wildfire Planning Process, which the guide discusses in great depth, are: draft and adopt a community wildfire protection plan (CWPP); regulate and incentivize the built environment at all scales; implement, maintain and enforce regulations and incentives; and respond to substantial changes such as wildfires or the passage of time. Numerous examples and best practices are provided for each of these steps throughout the guide.
The guide’s discussion of wildfire law and policy is also enriched by the inclusion of a robust risk perception survey, which was conducted by surveying nearly 20,000 Idaho households in wildfire priority areas throughout the state in Fall, 2015 and Winter, 2016. The guide provides significant helpful data worthy of investigation.
The guide is further supplemented by a robust appendix of over 30 wildfire code provisions from throughout Idaho and the West that provide a start for any local government seeking a resource of models from which to draft wildfire codes.
While the guide is intended to further wildfire planning specifically in Idaho, many of the techniques discussed, including the WUI Wildfire Planning Process outlined by the guide, are potentially valuable references for local communities throughout the West.
Keywords: wildfire, CWPP, community wildfire protection plan, wildland-urban interface, WUI, Firewise, Cohesive Strategy,
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation
Miller, Stephen R. and Wuerzer, Thomas and Vos, Jaap and Lindquist, Eric and Mowery, Molly and Holfeltz, Tyre and Stephens, Brian and Grad, Alexander, Planning for Wildfire in the Wildland-Urban Interface: A Resource Guide for Idaho Communities (September 28, 2016). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2845046 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2845046