Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Planning for Wildfire in the Wildland-Urban Interface, Part 1: An Overview of WUI Wildfire Planning

Tomorrow, my colleagues and I will officially unveil our new 167-page guide entitled Planning for Wildfire in the Wildland-Urban Interface: A Resource Guide for Idaho Communities.  The guide includes a novel four-step process to guide wildfire planning, over 30 examples of code provisions from throughout the West, the results of a large wildfire risk perception study, and more!

If you are in Boise, please come and join us for the unveiling of the guide in a joint presentation with Idaho Smart Growth on Wednesday, October 5 from 6 - 7:30 PM in Room 325 of the Idaho Law & Justice Learning Center (514 W. Jefferson Street in Boise).

On the blog, I plan to offer a series of posts that convey much of what we learned, and what we propose, that is applicable to wildfire planning not just to Idaho, but to communities throughout the West.  Through the project, we also came to believe that wildfire planning is still very much in its infancy; for that reason, we are calling this guide a "Discussion Draft."  Over the next two years, we will be engaged in a variety of outreach activities as well as several projects where we actually work with communities to try and implement the method of wildfire planning that we propose here.  After those experiences, we admit that we may well revise the method we propose; at the very least, we know we will have a deeper understanding of what works, and what doesn't.  We plan to incorporate that "earned knowledge" back into the guide in an updated version.

Without further ado, here is a summary of the guide, with more detail to come in future posts

Overview of WUI Wildfire Planning

The price of wildfire in the West has never been higher.  Why?  And what can Western communities do about it?

One way to measure the price of wildfire is the dollars spent on suppression alone.  In 1995, fire made up 16 percent of the U.S. Forest Service’s annual appropriation budget; in 2015, wildfire consumed more than 50 percent of the agency’s budget, a benchmark reflective of steadily rising costs.  A recent study of wildfires in Wyoming found that protecting just one isolated home can add $225,000 to the overall cost of fighting a fire.  But the price of fire is also told in lost recreational opportunities, scarred landscapes adjacent to city centers, loss of wildlife habitat, presence of invasive species, and increasingly, after-effects such as flood and landslides, that can cause even greater long-term harm to a community that the initial fire.

Wildfires occur in a variety of terrain, fuels, and weather.  This guide is focused on wildfires that occur in the wildland-urban interface, or WUI (pronounced “WOO-ee”).  The WUI is both a sociological and legal term that is fluid based upon context; however, a common definition used is that the WUI is where “humans and their development meet or intermix with wildland fuel.”  In 2006, the Forest Service adopted a similar policy definition, which states that  “[t]he WUI is the area where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland.” 

Although fewer wildfires occur in the WUI compared to timberlands or rangelands, they are of increasing concern for several reasons.  First, WUI fires are expensive to fight.  Six of the ten most expensive fires in the past 100 years were WUI fires.  Further, the WUI is relatively undeveloped.  By one account, just 14 percent of the WUI is developed, leaving a vast potential region of growth that, if developed without wildfire in mind, could yield staggering costs as the West grows.  Finding ways to prevent “locking in” long-term, high cost development patterns, while still encouraging such development and growth, is a threshold issue facing Western property owners, taxpayers, and governments.

The amount of science and technology dedicated to addressing wildfire in the WUI issues is substantial:  decades of research provide a rich array of knowledge about fire from which to draw.  The missing piece of the puzzle is the planning and legal framework that would apply that knowledge to protect property and lives from fire.  How can we use planning, law and incentives to implement what we already know about wildfire and keep our communities safe?

The proposal offered by this guide is a conceptual framework that local communities—governmental and non-governmental—can use over time.  The framework, which this guide calls the “WUI Wildfire Planning Process,” consists primarily of a four-step, cyclical planning process that revolves around the inter-governmental National Cohesive Strategy Vision and Goals for wildfire, and is supported at all times by education and outreach. 

Although little known outside of the fire community, the National Cohesive Strategy Goals are simple, but important, goals established through a five year planning process (2009 to 2014) in which federal agencies, state, tribal and local governments, as well as non-governmental parters, built a common vision of how the country could address wildfire.  The three goals of the Cohesive Strategy are maintaining landscapes; developing fire-adapted communities; and developing a multi-jurisdictional wildfire response based upon risk-based decisionmaking.  These Cohesive Strategy Goals are the core around which the WUI Wildfire Planning Process revolves.

The four active steps of the WUI Wildfire Planning Process are illustrated below.  They are:  draft and adopt a community wildfire protection plan (CWPP); regulate and incentivize the built environment at all scales; implement, maintain and enforce regulations and incentives; and respond to substantial changes such as wildfires or the passage of time.  The conceptual framework illustrates a progression of planning that leads to successful and well-informed results; however, wildfire experts know well that variations on these components and order can also yield successful wildfire planning results.  For purposes of beginning a dialogue about best practices for wildfire planning, the framework forms the backbone of the guide from which other discussions grow. WUI Wildfire Planning Process

Community wildfire protection plans are an excellent place to begin wildfire planning for several reasons.  A creature of federal law, CWPPs actually permit local communities to have a say in how wildfire on federal lands is maintained, which is a major concern for many Idaho communities.  Further, CWPPs make communities eligible for federal funding opportunities; such opportunities will grow as CWPPs are increasingly integrated into county All Hazard Mitigation Plans and, if properly updated every five years, will make wildfire hazards eligible for even more funds.  CWPPs are also important because they provide a framework for identifying wildfire risk at an ecological scale that permits local communities to think beyond their jurisdictional boundaries precisely because the process includes federal, state, tribal, and local government and non-governmental participants.  One of the limiting factors in the success of CWPPs in Idaho in the past has been that they have been conducted solely at the county level and by a select group of fire community individuals.  While county CWPPs are clearly still valuable, Idaho Department of Lands seeks to encourage the preparation of CWPPs at multiple scales, as contemplated by federal law and practiced in other Western states.  For instance, a county-wide CWPP may be supplemented by a city CWPP and even a neighborhood CWPP conducted by a homeowner’s association that has a particular wildfire hazard.  Each scale permits a different level of preparedness and analysis that is valuable.  CWPPs could also be more valuable by increasing the scope of participation to include others that will facilitate wildfire decisions in other parts of the process.  This would mean including local officials, local staff, and a proposed citizens’ advisory board, in addition to the traditional fire staff, in the CWPP process.

The second step in the process is for a local jurisdiction—a city or county—to decide on the package of regulations and incentives it will utilize to address the identified wildfire risk.  Doing so requires local governments to decide whether to allow development in areas of high wildfire risk and, if they do so, to decide how to respond with local values related to regulatory versus incentive-based approaches and the successes of each in relation to the risk.  The guide discusses several approaches that have worked well in other communities, which include: seeking co-benefits, such as open space, that may matter locally; seizing upon interest that often arises after a wildfire; choosing an approach that the community can support; and anticipating for wildfire’s after-effects, especially flood, landslide, aesthetic harm, and economic development issues.  There is no one-size-fits-all approach to wildfire.  For some communities, a simple approach could be to focus on the basics:  defensible space, metal roofs, and weed ordinances to reduce fuels.  This simple, effective solution can work very well in rural areas.  More urban areas will likely want a solution that fits the complexity of the built environment.  Regulatory tools are discussed at the community scale, such as comprehensive plans, specific plans, and land use zoning overlay districts; the neighborhood and subdivision scale; the individual site or project scale; and the building scale.  Non-regulatory tools are equally important and can supplement regulatory tools, or stand-alone.  They include the popular Firewise program, which is a valuable educational tool but which often yields uncertain results; insurance, which has a role to play in pricing fire risk; and homeowner’s associations, which are increasingly popular in Idaho and have served as a vehicle for local communities to provide enhanced wildfire security for their community independent of government regulation.

Once regulations and incentives have been adopted, they must be applied to specific projects and enforced over time; similarly, incentive programs must be implemented and examined to determine efficacy.  This third step may be the most important—it is where ideas yield results—but it is also an especially hard step for wildfire.  That is because many of the factors associated with wildfire risk reduction require maintenance—of buildings, of landscaping, of cleanliness near structures—that collides with the entitlement-driven development process that prioritizes one-time, up-front conditions of approval.  This section of the guide begins by discussing the importance of communication between local government departments to address precisely this issue.  The section then turns to the types of enforcement mechanisms that are being tried by some Idaho communities, but also communities throughout the West.  These include homeowner association CC&Rs that make local governments the third-party beneficiaries of wildfire-related maintenance agreements; using the development agreement process to plan for wildfire upfront; using zoning to require maintenance; as well as re-tooling nuisance ordinances to address wildfire.  The section also discusses some non-enforcement mechanisms, such as disclosure techniques that prioritize informing property owners of the wildfire risk on their lands, and how to mitigate it.  Other approaches include cities that conduct wildfire fuel reduction work for private property owners so long as they sign a maintenance agreement for on-going upkeep of the mitigation.

The fourth, and final step in the process occurs when there is a substantial event, such as a wildfire, or even a secondary effect like a flood or landslide, that causes the local community to realize that it needs to re-evaluate, and re-visit its wildfire planning strategy.  In addition to such an event, the passage of time becomes its own reason to revisit a wildfire planning strategy, if only because WUI demographics change quickly; an exurban community one year could be a bona fide bedroom community in a decade.  In addition, as Idaho moves to integrate CWPPs into All Hazard Mitigation Plans, the CWPPs will need to be reviewed every year and revised every five years for compliance with AHMP regulations.  The combination of wildfire events and the passage of time give local communities a number of reasons to revisit their approach to planning, determine what has worked and what has faltered, and create an amended plan going forward.

Although a community’s planning process may not follow this conceptual framework precisely, the frame provides a way to contemplate how to use all of the tools available to maximize wildfire preparedness.  Along the way, education remains a vital component of wildfire planning, both to communicate the nature of wildfire risk but also what it means to be prepared to face that risk.  To that end, Appendix A to the guide provides significant excerpts of codes from Idaho local governments, and some other local governments from throughout the West, to serve as models for similarly-situated communities.

This discussion is also enriched by the inclusion of a robust risk perception survey, which was conducted by surveying nearly 20,000 Idaho households in wildfire priority areas throughout the state in Fall, 2015 and Winter, 2016.  The guide provides significant helpful data worthy of review.  The most telling questions, however, may be those that reflect sentiment toward local regulation of fire.  Approximately 55% of respondents stated that WUI codes should differ from other areas that are less fire prone.  Support for more restrictive code and regulation exists with 46% answering yes, 23% maybe, and 30% no.  When asked whether they would be willing to pay a premium to be more “Firewise,” about 15% stated yes, about 36% maybe, and probably not combined with definitely not are almost 49%.  When asked whether they would support legislation to be more “Firewise,” about 37% stated yes, about 27% maybe, and probably not combined with definitely not are almost 35%.

A strong majority (68%) of respondents stated that they see themselves responsible to protect home and property.  A small minority (18%) of respondents stated that they see the local fire department as responsible to protect their home and property.  About 43% believe that the city or county government is responsible to protect home and property, whereas 37% do not believe this is the city or county’s role, and about 18% are not sure.  About 63% believe that the city or county government is responsible to protect public lands, whereas 23% do not believe this is the case, and about 19% are not sure about it. 

The survey data indicates that there is a political base for both regulation- and incentive-based approaches to wildfire, but local communities will have to make the case to those who are on the fence and unsure that all would be better off with some wildfire planning.  This is redoubled by the fact that additional survey results indicate that many believe that their own homes are safe despite acknowledging nearby fire risk to others.  

Making the case for wildfire planning requires understanding the problem and the methods we have to solve it.  This guide is a place to start, but it is just a beginning.  This version is labeled a discussion draft.  Over the next several years, the research team will host a variety of educational engagements across the state.  The guide will change in response to local feedback and the conversations that evolve about fire over time.  The goal will be simple:  to find local answers that keep wildfire from exacting the price that is inevitable in the status quo, something none of us can afford. 

About the Project

In 2015, the U.S. Forest Service and the Idaho Department of Lands provided a grant to scholars at the University of Idaho and Boise State University to address planning for wildland-urban interface (WUI) wildfires throughout Idaho’s varied terrain and communities.  In the first phase of the project, law students in the Economic Development Clinic at the University of Idaho College of Law’s Boise campus contacted all 200 Idaho cities and 44 Idaho counties to determine the status of existing wildfire regulations and incentives.  In addition, the Clinic also collected and reviewed all 44 of Idaho’s county wildfire protection plans, which were generally written between 2003 and 2007, as well as updates to those plans currently underway in several counties. 

At the same time, Boise State University’s Public Policy Research Center conducted a risk perception study to understand how Idahoans relate to wildfire risk.  In the second and third years of the grant, the University of Idaho’s Bio-regional Planning and Community Design program will join the effort, coordinating workshops around the State to assist local communities to find locally appropriate approaches to planning for wildfire in the WUI.  

Planning for Wildfire in the Wildland-Urban Interface was a collaboration and the first product of the grant; many people deserve credit.  Other authors of the guide include Thomas Wuerzer, Associate Professor for Real Estate Development, Nova Southeastern University (formerly of Boise State University); Eric Lindquist, Director, Public Policy Research Center, Boise State University; Jaap Vos, Program Head, Bioregional Planning & Community Design, University of Idaho College of Art and Architecture; Molly Mowery, Wildfire Planning International; Tyre Holfeltz, Idaho Department of Lands; and two students from my Economic Development Clinic, Brian Stephens and Alexander Grad.


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