Wildfire prevention has become an important public policy issue in most parts of the U.S. People want to live in picturesque and scenic areas. However, the combination of residents who do not understand the implications of their location choices and communities that eagerly embrace development patterns that may pose wildfire risks leads to a very expensive problem.
The problem has become so severe that the National Fire Protection Association has created a program called Firewise to help educate residents and communities interested in what professionals would call hazard planning and mitigation.
This is a voluntary program, but about 1,000 communities have become certified in the Firewise system.
However, we don't intend that this web page serve as an uncritical summary of Firewise. One of our criticisms of their approach is that there is insufficient attention given to the fact that local municipalities or counties have the power to control land uses, if only they use that power wisely.
How would wildfire prevention through land use planning principles work? Let's list the steps:
1. Identify significant areas of forest and wilderness (right now just defined as masses of trees and large plants), and note the predominant species.
2. Map these areas on the same map or GIS (geographic information systems, or computer program for mapping) layer that shows the locations of homes, or better yet, the location of residential zoning. If there is no zoning, map sites where building homes would be allowed, considering every type of regulation and utility constraint.
3. Research the local history of wildfires and the susceptibility of the particular types of forests or understory that you have near homes in your community. Some plants are considerably more flammable than others.
4. Consult a local meteorologist for insights about prevailing wind patterns at different times of the year and moisture records in recent years.
5. Inspect your zoning map and future land use map in relation to all that you are learning. Determine whether your area is "built out," meaning that all or most of the construction that would be allowed by current codes already has occurred. If not, you should strongly consider down-zoning.
6. Consider whether it may be possible to create a zoning district for parcels that are adjacent to the wilderness or within a certain distance from a significant forest or wilderness landscape. The distances and shape of this district could be made even more sophisticated if you are able to account for the influence of wind patterns.
Obviously you cannot take all value from private property through zoning, but with a good rationale, your community can and should impose agricultural zoning next to forested land.
7. In potential fire danger areas, construction on level terrain is much more desirable than building on slopes because fire spreads faster on even a gentle incline. Your land use regulation, usually in a zoning ordinance, can require the selection of the most nearly level parts of a site, although you will want to talk with your municipal attorney about case law pertaining to such assertive regulation. You also should consider requiring a very substantial setback from a cliff or ravine, which has the added bonus of helping to avert mudslides.
Next let's discuss the six of the seven Firewise recommended home features that can be regulated by a local government.
1. Fire-resistant wall construction. This likely would mean brick, concrete, or stucco exterior walls. We are not aware of much history of outright prevention of wood frame structures, but a little research should be able to turn up legally defensible ways to prohibit frame buildings for the sake of wildfire prevention.
2. Fire-resistant roofs. Again, this deals mainly with coice of materials. Metal, tile, and slate roofs obviously offer superior fire resistance, as do what are known as Class A asphalt shingles. Once again, careful consideration of the legal defense of such regulations will be important.
3. Fire-resistant structures that are attached to the primary residence in some way. We're speaking of garages, decks, porches, trellises, shutters and fences. This is yet another instance where material specification as part of local building code is important.
4. Required consideration of the Home Ignition Zone. This idea means that at least 30 feet, and ideally more like 100 to 200 feet, around the home are kept clear of combustible materials. What the planning profession calls accessory buildings, such as storage sheds, barns, and outbuildings, need to stay quite far away from the home or else be constructed from fire-resistant materials.
Local government has limited success in trying to fix bad housekeeping. You can try
requiring prompt removal of dead trees, but you're never going to have
enough legislative leash to get by with requiring removal of dry leaves,
for instance. Regular code enforcement addressing issues such as clunker cars or piles of debris would be helpful.
Firewise landscaping called "lean, clean, and green landscaping."
Probably much more difficult for most municipalities or counties to
regulate will be the placement, extent, and density of landscaping. If your
codes are extremely detailed now, with no public outcry, you might
discuss these measures for wildfire prevention.
Obviously trying to fix stupid through regulation has its limitations. But with whatever powers of persuasion that community organizations have, they should try to educate their constituents about highly flammable plants and less flammable plants that are popular in your area.
One thing that local governments should check is to make sure that beautification or environmental measures that they require, such as tree planting, don't inadvertently make the task of wildfire prevention much more difficult.
6. Emergency route signage. Local governments can and should think in advance about emergency evacuation routes, whether or not they feel they have the legal and political backing necessary for taking the preventive steps outlined above.
You may want to understand much more about the Firewise program.
Another important matter for local government officials to consider is the extent of its vegetation removal prohibitions. If this becomes overly strict, so that every invasive species of shrub or tree has to be preserved, you are asking for trouble in the form of fires. Consider allowing regular removal of understory, or at least minimize the difficulty and expense of obtaining permits.