The bold plan that could save lives from wildfires

forest fires they are getting bigger, more frequent and more severe in many areas. While efforts are underway to create fire-adapted communities, it’s important to realize that we can’t just engineer our way out of wildfires; some communities will need to start planning a retreat.

Paradise, California, is an example. For decades, this community has worked to reduce dry grasses and brush and forest overgrowth on surrounding wild lands that could burn. He built firebreaks to prevent fires from spreading and promoted defensible space around homes.

But in 2018, these efforts were not enough. The Camp Fire started with wind-damaged power lines, swept through the ravine and destroyed more than 18,800 structures. Eighty-five people died.

Across the western United States and other fire-prone countries, thousands of communities like Paradise are at risk. Many, if not most, are located in the wildland-urban interface, a zone between undeveloped land and urban areas where both wildfires and sprawl are common. From 1990 to 2010, new housing in the wildland-urban interface in the continental US grew by 41 percent.

Whether in the form of large master-planned communities or incremental house-by-house construction, developers have been placing new homes in danger zones.

First Street Foundation created a national wildfire model that assesses fire risk at the local level to help communities understand and prepare. The map reflects the probability of a forest fire occurring in an area in 2022.First Street Foundation Wildfire Model

Almost four years have passed since the Camp Fire, but Paradise’s population is now less than 30 percent of what it was before. This makes Paradise one of the first documented cases of voluntary retreat in the face of wildfire risk. And while the notion of wildfire retreat is controversial, politically fraught, and not yet supported by the general public, as experts in urban planning and environmental design, we believe the need for retreat will become increasingly unavoidable.

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But removal isn’t just about bulk moves. Here are four forms of withdrawal used to keep people out of harm’s way.

Limit future development

At one end of the wildfire specter of retreat 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, as wildfires burn faster uphill. In the guidelines, steep slopes have a slope of at least 25 percent and a vertical rise of at least 50 feet. In most cases, new buildings cannot encroach on this zone and must be located at least 30 feet from the slope.

While policies that limit development like this prevent new construction in some of the most dangerous conditions, they often cannot eliminate fire risk.

Policies that limit development may include more stringent building standards. The illustration shows the difference between a house on a steep hillside that is difficult to defend from fire and one further up the slope.emily schlickman

stop new construction

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

These first two levels of action could be implemented using basic urban planning tools, beginning with county and city master plans and zoning and subdivision ordinances. For example, Los Angeles County recently updated its general plan to limit new expansion in wildfire danger zones.

Urban growth limits could also be adopted locally, as many suburban communities north of San Francisco have done, or they could be imposed by states, as Oregon did in 1973.

Halting construction and managing growth in high-risk parts of the wildland-urban interface is another retreat tool.emily schlickman

To aid in the process, states and the federal government could designate fire hazard areas, similar to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood maps. California already designates zones with three levels of fire risk: moderate, high, and very high.

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They could also develop fire-prone landscape zoning laws, similar to legislation that has helped limit new development along coastlines, wetlands and earthquake fault lines.

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

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

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

Incentives to encourage people to move

In severe risk areas, the “incentivized relocation” technique could be tried to help people get out of the way of wildfires through programs such as voluntary buyouts. Similar programs have been used after floods.

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

The City of Paradise created a buyout program funded by donations and non-profit grants. However, only 300 acres of fragmented parcels have been acquired, suggesting that stronger incentives and more financing may be required.

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The elimination of government-backed fire insurance plans or the institution of risk-based variable fire insurance rates could also encourage people to avoid high-risk areas.

Another potential tool is a “transferable development rights” framework. Under such a framework, developers wishing to build more intensively in lower-risk urban centers could purchase development rights from owners in rural areas where fire-prone land is to be preserved or returned to a greenfield status.

Rural owners are thus compensated for the loss of use of their property. These frames have been used for growth management purposes in Montgomery County, Maryland, and in Massachusetts and Colorado.

Incentivized relocation can be used in areas of severe risk by subsidizing the movement of some people out of the path of wildfires. The illustrations show what the before and after would look like.emily schlickman

Wholesale removals of entire communities

Vulnerable communities may want to relocate but don’t want to leave neighbors and friends. “Wholesale moving” involves managing the entire resettlement of a vulnerable community.

While this technique has yet to be implemented for wildfire-prone areas, there is a long history of its use after catastrophic flooding. One place it is currently being used is Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, which has lost 98 percent of its land mass since 1955 due to erosion and rising sea levels. In 2016, the community received a federal grant to plan a retreat to higher ground, including the design of a new community center 40 miles to the north and in the highlands of the island.

This technique, however, has drawbacks, from the complicated logistics and support required to relocate an entire community to the time frame needed to develop a resettlement plan and the potential to overburden existing communities with the displaced.

In areas of extreme risk, mass removal could be one approach: managing the resettlement of an entire vulnerable community in a safer area.emily schlickman

Even with ideal landscape management, wildfire risks to communities will continue to increase and removal from the wildland-urban interface will become increasingly necessary. The main question is whether that withdrawal will be planned, safe and equitable, or delayed, forced and catastrophic.

This article was originally published on The conversation by Emily E. Schlickman, Brett Milligan, and Stephen M. Wheeler at the University of California, Davis. Read the original article here.

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