Op-ed: Rethinking roles and reforming rules are required to mitigate wildfire risks

10 May 2021

Published by https://www.archpaper.com/

USA – In a year that reset normal, 2020 taught us to expect the unexpected. Fears and uncertainties surrounding the global pandemic were compounded by record-breaking natural disasters—western states experiencing heat waves and droughts also witnessed the extreme destruction of wildfires. Immediate impacts of wildfires—most evident in lives lost, homes burned—gripped the media. Well after the smoke clears, however, the cost of wildfires lingers in lost recreational opportunities, impaired wildlife habitat, scarred landscapes, and after-effects like flooding and landslides.

Experts have cautioned about the rise of highly destructive megafires and predict that we are facing a fire regime unprecedented in the last 10,000 years. In 2020, 58,950 wildfires burned over 10 million acres across the United States, an increase of 848 percent from 1985. In 2020, California experienced its first “gigafire” when the August Complex fire burned over 1,000,000 acres of land. The age of megafires and gigafires has arrived, leaving many people feeling powerless to prepare or protect their homes and communities.

Rising temperatures, drought, and premature snowpack melt have not increased wildfire risk on their own. An additional factor is the dramatic growth of the development in the wildland-urban interface (WUI), where humans and development meet or intermix with wildlands The WUI is the fastest-growing land-use type in the conterminous United States in terms of both number of new houses and land area. According to the International Code Council, new WUI areas are the result of new housing (97 percent)—not the result of an increase in wildland vegetation. As WUI development expands, more communities face loss of life and property. The 2017 California fires alone resulted in $11.8 billion in insurance dollars claimed, which, according to a RAND Corporation study, negated most of the insurance profits from the previous 15 years in California and led to insurers dropping 235,274 policies in 2019. Moderate-to-high fire risk counties experienced nonrenewal increases of over 200 percent. As these trends collide, the residual effect leaves communities, federal agencies, and insurers with increased suppression costs, loss of life and property.

An Integrated and More Effective Approach

Wildfire risks to lives and property will not decrease in scale or intensity if development trends continue as-is. Recognizing the role of wildfire, re-thinking the role of decision-makers, and reforming land use and zoning rules to live with wildfire can help reduce risk. Yet, most states and communities are not required to consider wildfire hazards as part of their land-use decisions, relying instead on individual strategies to reduce wildfire risk such as voluntary homeowner education. Suppression and fuel mitigation alone are not enough to prevent disasters, and communities want to understand what more can be done.

Addressing this call to action to communicate wildfire planning concepts with land use decision-makers, Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire (CPAW) engaged Design Workshop—an international landscape architecture and planning firm with offices across the U.S.—to redefine the communication of their technical concepts into an easily understandable, graphically rich asset library.

CPAW offers free technical services to empower communities at risk with effective policy and regulatory solutions. Funded by the USDA Forest Service and private foundations, CPAW’s team of foresters, land-use planners, economists, and wildfire risk modelers collaborate with local planners, designers, fire personnel, foresters, and other stakeholders in selected communities. Their efforts seek to integrate wildfire mitigation into the development planning process, provide recommendations and risk assessments, and facilitate peer-to-peer learning exchanges and capacity building at no cost to the community.

Together with CPAW, Carly Klein, a former associate with Design Workshop (currently a senior planner for Pitkin County Open Space and Trails) applied her real-life experiences as a wildland firefighter in the West to guide the development of a suite of visual communication tools that have supported the adoption of new policies across multiple jurisdictions, geographies, and fire regimes, illustrating a potential way forward.

Communication to Drive Action

Our nation’s ongoing wildfire challenges require multi-pronged collaborations between public-private entities. The foundational series initiated by Design Workshop, seen in this collection of visuals, has resulted in the adoption of effective policies and regulations across multiple jurisdictions, illustrating how landscape architects and architects may meaningfully contribute to safer and more resilient places to live.

The graphic archive above moved far beyond typical defensible space diagrams depicting single homesites on flat landscapes, which are often overtly general and ignore specific development changes. Instead, the illustrations combined proven CPAW best practices, scientific data, and real-world personal experiences to craft a distinct library of assets that translates technical concepts into three-dimensional visual resources related to land use, vulnerability, and mitigation.

The visuals drive home the importance of collective land use and design decisions at a community scale, not just individual homeowner actions. As such, considerations at multiple scales are considered, linking together the relationships of the built environment at the site, neighborhood, city, and regional scales. Used to educate audiences in all current and future communities, across all regions, that partake in the program, the project is a resource that could be incorporated into municipal codes and regulations. To date, CPAW has worked with over 70 communities across the Midwest and Western regions, including Mariposa County, California.

Empowering Designers to Expect the Unexpected

As stressors of climate change and shocks of natural hazards undermine the health, safety, and vibrancy of communities, planning and design at all scales must contribute to achieve resilient communities. Integrating wildfire risks into the community development process allows actions to occur at different scales: individual lots, neighborhood, and community-wide. At the community scale, interventions build resiliency and minimize the impact of wildfires on infrastructure, housing, and the economy.

Communities in Mariposa County, California have been repeatedly affected by wildfires over the years. Most identifiable by Yosemite National Park, the county is characterized by dense forests and sprawling chaparral. Since 2001, nearly 60 percent of the county land area has burned. The county also has identified other challenges in the wildland-urban interface that are exacerbating local wildfire conditions, like excess fuels generated by a high concentration of tree mortality and vast areas of undeveloped open space not maintained for vegetation or wildfire risk mitigation.

A chart describing all of the potential stages of firestopping
(Courtesy Design Workshop)

In considering how Mariposa County can best manage existing and future development in areas likely to experience wildfires and implement a robust approach to addressing the hazards, the county looked specifically to the intersection of wildfires and recreation. Potentially the first of its kind, Design Workshop completed a Recreation and Resiliency Plan for Mariposa County that models how planning for recreation and wildfire resiliency can be achieved. The plan insists that recreation planning must address these issues of wildfire and climate change and do more than support the development and maintenance of parks. It equips leaders with multilayered resiliency planning and design tactics to address climate change.

Addressing wildfire resiliency as part of planning for public lands and community amenities enables communities to achieve the co-benefits of integrating resiliency adaptation measures into parks, trails, and open spaces. The resulting resilient recreation system is better able to withstand changing conditions while continuing to provide critical services. Strategies support Mariposa County’s ability to increase physical and social resilience by minimizing risks to public health, safety, and economic disruption, and maximizes protection of the most vulnerable so that they survive and thrive after climate-related events like wildfires.

Carly Klein, a former associate with Design Workshop, is a senior planner for Pitkin County Open Space and Trails in Aspen, Colorado. For more information, visit www.pitkincounty.com.

Stephanie Grigsby is a landscape architect and planner with Design Workshop, an international landscape architecture, planning, and urban design firm. For more information about Stephanie, visit www.designworkshop.com.

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