We can’t design our way out of wildfires

By Emily E. Schlickman and Brett Milligan and Stephen M. Wheeler 6 minutes Read

Wildfires in the American West are getting bigger, more frequent and more serious. While efforts are being made to create communities adapted to the fire, it’s important to realize that we can’t just work our way out of the wildfire — some communities will have to start planning a retreat.

Paradise, California, is an example. For decades, this community has worked to reduce dry grasses, scrub and forest overgrowth in the surrounding wilderness that could burn. It built firebreaks to keep fires from spreading and promoted defensible space around houses.

But in 2018, these efforts were not enough. The campfire started from wind-damaged power lines, sweeping up the canyon and destroying more than 18,800 buildings. Eighty-five people died.

Across America, thousands of communities like Paradise are at risk. Many, if not most, are located in the wildland-urban border area, a zone between undeveloped land and urban areas where both wildfires and uncontrolled growth are common. From 1990 to 2010, new homes in the wilderness-urban border area in the continental US grew by 41%.

Whether large master-planned communities or incremental, house-by-house construction, developers have placed new homes in danger zones.

First Street Foundation has developed a national wildfire model that assesses fire risk at the local level to help communities understand and prepare. The map shows the probability that forest fires will occur in an area in 2022. [Image: First Street Foundation Wildfire Model]It’s been nearly four years since the campfire, but Paradise’s population is now less than 30% of what it once was. This makes Paradise one of the first documented cases of voluntary withdrawal in light of the risk of wildfires. And while the idea of ​​retreat through wildfires is controversial and politically charged and not yet endorsed by the general public, as experts in urban planning and environmental design, we believe the need for retreat will become increasingly inevitable.

But retreat is not just about wholesale moving. Here are four types of retreat that are used to keep people out of harm’s way.

Limiting future development

At one end of the spectrum of wildfire withdrawal are development-limiting policies that create stricter standards for new construction. These can be used in moderate risk areas or communities that are unwilling to change.

One example is San Diego’s steep slope guidelines that restrict construction in areas with significant slope changes because wildfires burn faster uphill. In the guidelines, steep slopes have a gradient of at least 25% and a vertical height of at least 50 feet. In most cases, new buildings cannot penetrate this zone and must be at least 10 meters from the hill.

While these development-limiting policies prevent new construction in the most dangerous conditions, they often cannot eliminate the fire risk.

Restrictive policies may include stricter building standards. The image shows the difference between a house on a steep slope that is difficult to defend against fire and a house further up the slope. [Image: Emily Schlickman]

Shutting down new construction

Further down the spectrum are construction-limiting measures, which prevent new construction from managing growth in high-risk parts of the wildland-urban interface.

Both of these first two levels of action could be implemented using basic urban planning tools, starting with county and city general plans and zoning, and allotment ordinances. For example, Los Angeles County recently updated its overall plan to limit new sprawl in wildfire risk zones. Boundaries for urban growth can also be set locally, as many suburban communities north of San Francisco have done, or can be imposed by states, as Oregon did in 1973.

Halting construction and controlling growth in high-risk parts of the wildland-urban interface is another retreat tool. [Image: Emily Schlickman]To aid the process, states and the federal government can designate fire-hazardous areas, similar to Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps. California already designates zones with three fire hazard levels: moderate, high and very high.

They could also develop fire-prone landscape zoning, similar to legislation that has helped limit new developments along coasts, on wetlands and along earthquake faults.

Incentives for local governments to adopt these frameworks can be provided through planning and technical assistance grants or preferential financing for infrastructure. At the same time, states or federal agencies may deny funding to local authorities that facilitate development in areas of severe risk.

In some cases, state officials can go to court to halt county-approved projects to prevent loss of life and property and reduce the costs taxpayers could pay to maintain and protect property at risk.

Three high-profile projects in California’s wildland-urban interface have been held back in court because their environmental impact assessments fail to adequately address the increased wildfire risk the projects pose. (Full disclosure: In 2018, one of us, Emily Schlickman, briefly worked as a design consultant on one of these — an experience that inspired this article.)

Incentives to encourage people to move

In areas with serious risks, the technique of ‘incentivized relocation’ could be tested to help people move away from wildfires through programs such as voluntary buyouts. Similar programs have been used after floods.

Local governments would partner with FEMA to offer eligible homeowners the pre-disaster value of their home in exchange for not rebuilding. To date, this type of federally supported buyout program has yet to be implemented for wildfire areas, but some vulnerable communities have developed their own program.

The City of Paradise has established a buyout program funded by non-profit grants and donations. However, only 300 acres of patchwork plots have been acquired, suggesting that stronger incentives and more funding may be needed.

Eliminating government-backed fire insurance plans or setting variable fire insurance rates based on risk can also encourage people to avoid high-risk areas.

Another potential instrument is a “transferable development rights” framework. In such a framework, developers seeking to build more intensively in lower-risk city centers could purchase development rights from landowners in rural areas where fire-prone land must be preserved or returned undeveloped. The rural landowners are thus compensated for the lost use of their property. These frameworks have been used for growth management purposes in Montgomery County, Maryland, and in Massachusetts and Colorado.

Incentivized relocations can be used in areas of serious risk by subsidizing the relocation of some people away from forest fires. The illustrations show what before and after can look like. [Image: Emily Schlickman]

Whole communities move, wholesale

Vulnerable communities may want to move, but don’t want to leave neighbors and friends behind. “Wholesale Relocation” involves managing the full resettlement of a vulnerable community.

While this technique has yet to be implemented for areas prone to wildfires, there is a long history of its use after catastrophic flooding. One place where it is currently used is Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, which has lost 98% of its land mass since 1955 due to erosion and sea level rise. In 2016, the community received a federal grant to plan a retreat to higher elevations, including the design of a new community center 40 miles north and highland of the island.

However, this technique has drawbacks: from the complicated logistics and support required to relocate an entire community, to the time frame required to develop a resettlement plan, to potentially overloading existing communities with displaced persons.

In extreme risk areas, large scale relocation could be an approach – managing the resettlement of a very vulnerable community to a safer area. [Image: Emily Schlickman]Even with ideal landscape management, wildfire risks to communities will continue to increase, and it will become increasingly necessary to withdraw from the wildland-urban interface. The key question is whether that retreat will be planned, safe and equitable, or delayed, forced and catastrophic.

Emily E. Schlickman is an assistant professor of landscape architecture and environmental design at the University of California, Davis; Brett Milligan is an associate professor of landscape architecture and environmental design at the University of California, Davis; and Stephen M. Wheeler is a professor of urbanism, planning and sustainability at the University of California, Davis.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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