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The Risk of Wildfire

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… The threat of wildfire is increasing in North America. More people are living in wooded areas or in developments constructed next to forestlands. According to a report prepared by a panel of the U.S. National Academy of Public Administration, communities are continuing to build into their nearby wildlands faster than defensible spaces are being created around them — and faster than local governments are adopting and enforcing essential zoning and subdivision regulations.

Compounding the problem, forests in western North America have been abnormally dry. Environment Canada, for example, indicates that southern British Columbia went through its driest three-year period on record between 2000 and 2002. Last summer, the U.S. National Weather Service reported that most parts of the western U.S. (about one third of the entire continental U.S.) were experiencing from abnormally dry to extreme drought conditions.

Further exacerbating the threat of major wildfires has been the increasing amount of “fuel” building up in forestlands, in the form of dead brush, dried grass, and fallen tree limbs. This fuel build up has occurred, in large part, because of the practice of suppressing natural fires — that is, interfering with the natural cycle by which fires periodically clear away underbrush. Overly aggressive fire suppression means that when fires do occur, they are often hotter, more difficult to control, and more catastrophic.

graphic illustration of flames from a fireThe combination of decades of fire suppression, a dry climatic pattern, and increasing numbers of homes being built in or adjacent to forests, has made the threat of wildfires a real prospect for a growing number of communities. …

Recognizing that wildfires can often pose a community-wide risk, more towns, cities, and counties are addressing the threat in their planning and development approval processes. The goal is to reduce the hazards (and community costs) posed by wildfires by considering a range of policies, from preventing sprawling rural developments to developing criteria for new housing construction, such as fire resistant roofing and siding materials

Community Plans and Development Approvals

1. Community Plans

As most Planning Commissioners Journal readers understand, the purpose of a community (or comprehensive) plan is to outline goals, policies, and strategies for dealing with a wide variety of land use and community development issues. It is certainly appropriate for a plan to address natural hazards — indeed, historically, one of the primary justifications for planning and zoning has been to promote public health and safety. Many local plans, for example, deal with the threat of flooding. Similarly, in communities with forested areas, local plans can and should deal with the threat of wildfires.

Among the key questions that can be addressed:

What wildfire hazard reduction methods does the community currently use?
What methods are available, but not being used?
How are fire hazards dealt with in the development review process?

… article continues with discussion of components of a community planning process for wildfire, then examines how to incorporate wildfire mitigation strategies in the subdivision review process.

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