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Wildfires are a growing problem but developers can be part of the solution

by Jim Heid

Across the American west, 2020 has been the most active fire season on record. So far, more than 8 million acres have gone up in flames, with dozens killed and untold billions in property losses.

Call it the new normal. As the planet warms and human settlements expand their reach, we can expect bigger, hotter, more-devastating blazes. Preventing fires — and reducing their toll — is an urgent priority for both the public and private sectors.

Most wildfires occur in the “wildland-urban interface” where development pushes ever deeper into fire-prone natural areas. That expansion is driven by consumer demand — the desire to live close to nature — as well as by housing shortages in and around major cities. The lack of affordable housing, in particular, has driven many low-income families to housing vulnerable to wildfire on the fringes of urban areas.

Combined with the bigger, hotter fires of a changing climate, development at the forest’s edge has created a volatile situation — literally. The resulting wildfires affect everyone, but they take the biggest toll on households with fewest resources, who then have the fewest options when it comes to rebuilding.

In response, many developers are rethinking how we build. And we are learning that there’s much we can do to reduce fire risk. A new report by the Urban Land Institute offers a menu of best practices — including hardening structures, managing vegetation, comprehensive and regional planning, and tenant and community engagement.

It is possible to reduce fire risk, even at the forest’s edge. One of the big takeaways in California is that nature-rich areas are not just a lifestyle amenity. Well-managed buffer zones of parks and open space — without thick, flame-spreading forest canopies or built-up underbrush, for example — can act as critical firebreaks around communities that help slow or stop wildfires. But in return for proximity to nature, communities need to accept more density inside town boundaries.

That way, we can address our critical housing needs, while keeping the area that must be protected from fire to a manageable size.

For communities destroyed by fire, rebuilding offers an opportunity to prevent a recurrence. That’s why Pepperwood, a Northern California research institute that manages a 3,200-acre field station, has become a living laboratory for wildfire resilience. In October 2017, the Tubbs fire — at the time the most destructive fire in California’s history — burned right through Pepperwood, causing the loss of all but one major structure.

Now, Pepperwood is rebuilding three structures with materials that are ignition-resistant, sustainable, and non-toxic. The new buildings have a mix of noncombustible metal exteriors and cement fiber panel cladding as well as cement plaster walls and dense black locust decking to reduce flame spread. The buildings also have zero-VOC (volatile organic compound) clay walls in some areas and in others, low-VOC paint.

Buildings have few structural depressions where embers could collect and ignite. The surrounding landscape is beautiful and carefully planned, but includes little flammable vegetation.

At Pepperwood these steps were taken voluntarily, often going beyond county and state requirements — and beyond what was covered by insurance, as a way to demonstrate leadership and ‘proof of concept’ to the building industry for more fire resilient techniques. This will help further inform building codes to make fire resilience the rule, rather than the exception.

Government agencies in wildfire-prone areas are increasingly willing to impose regulations to manage wildfire impacts and costs. The fact is, those regulations work. California instituted its Chapter 7A Building Code in 2008, which has since become an internationally recognized example of best practice in fire resilience. Homes built according to that code have survived recent wildfires at higher rates than their conventionally-built counterparts.

In the wake of devastating fires, more jurisdictions are regulating construction in the wildland-urban interface. Austin, Texas recently adopted a code with best-practice ignition-resistant standards for both new and remodeled structures — a heavy lift in a regulation-resistant state. The Austin Fire Department coordinated the drafting and approval of the new code. And city officials laid the groundwork for success with an extensive participatory process that involved public, private, and community stakeholders.

Another lesson that emerges from this work is the value of public-private partnerships. Communities are safer when developers consult public-sector fire experts earlier in the permitting, design, and development process. And government agencies extend their reach when they rely on the private sector to implement practices. Nongovernmental organizations have a role to play, too — adding critical capacity on community engagement, wildfire education, vegetation management, and post-fire recovery.

One effective public-private partnership emerged in Boulder, Colorado, after the 2010 Fourmile Canyon fire. There, Boulder County created the Wildfire Partners program to help homeowners increase the wildfire resilience of their properties. The program is staffed by local government officials, along with representatives from the insurance company Allstate, which provides discounts to homeowners who complete the program. In nearby Vail, the local board of realtors initiated and funded a similar program called REALFire, which has since won support from the state and county.

There is much we can do to protect people and property from the growing risk of wildfire. The practices outlined above are being implemented in communities across the U.S. and around the world, but they need to be used more widely. And it’s important that the real estate industry work to protect communities, both in our own development work and in better understanding and advocating for policies that protect the most vulnerable.

There will be more devastating blazes in the years to come, but developers — in partnership with government and nonprofits — can build a more fire-resilient future.

This article was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation. It was originally published November 18, 2020 on Thompson Reuters Foundation News.

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Urban Resilience Project

Urban Resilience Project

A changing climate means a changing society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project (URP) is committed to a greener, fairer future.

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