Wildfire in the West is getting more severe all the time - burning longer, hotter and more frequently, destroying more homes, stretching federal funds to the limit, endangering more firefighters. Rising temperatures are driving the trend, and there's no indication things will change course.
Faced with these dire circumstances, 20 of the West’s most influential wildfire experts gathered in Jackson Hole, Wyo., at a closed-door Wildfire Solutions Forum last month in an effort to generate radical ideas on how to lessen future fire danger in Western communities. The theme of the event centered on one question: How can we control the pace, scale and pattern of future development of the wildland-urban interface, or WUI? Across the West, 84 percent of this interface – where federal public land abuts private land within a 1/3-mile radius – remains undeveloped.
This “84 percent” was a rallying cry for the two-day forum, and symbolized a need to shift wildfire conversation away from the portion of WUI that is already developed. This is breakthrough thinking in the world of wildfire policy, where the priority has been to protect existing communities rather than venturing into the realm of future development.
“There’s this invisible line you’re not allowed to cross,” said the forum’s organizer, Ray Rasker, director of Headwaters Economics, an independent research group focused on Western land management. “If you start talking about restricting private property rights, that’s sort of a career-ending conversation you’re having.”
The current wildfire conversation revolves around preemptive planning and education for places people already live. Community Wildfire Protection Plans encourage thinning trees and removing understory around a home, but they rarely figure into plans for future development. Officials and planners generally avoid the touchy question of how to regulate the undeveloped 84 percent because of deep-seated public distaste for restrictions on where to live in the West, and so development along the WUI continues with virtually no consideration of fire risk.
The recent forum was closed to press and to the public to encourage participants to propose even the most politically unfavorable ideas. The approach yielded some bold propositions, fit for what Rasker called a “firetopia” of flawless wildfire policy – such as:
- Fire risk mapping and mandatory notice. The federal government would create and maintain detailed fire risk maps of the entire WUI, as is already done for floodplains. Potential property buyers would be notified of the risk level where they intend to build or move, and agree to certain requirements – such as fireproof building materials or signing a contract acknowledging that in the event of a fire, firefighters wouldn’t be sent in.
- Development plans that include standardized wildfire risk ratings. In other words, the integration of Community Wildfire Protection Plans into local development plans, rather than only applying them to existing structures.
- Federal assistance based on fire-risk planning. Many rural counties currently depend on “payment in lieu of taxes” from the federal government, money they receive to compensate for their nontaxable federal lands, with no strings attached. Those payments would be withheld if counties don’t complete comprehensive development plans that take wildfire risk into account.
- Denial of loans for houses in high-risk wildfire zones. This is another case where floodplains legislation has set a precedent: no borrowing money to build in the most dangerous places.
- Putting the costs on local communities. Currently, when a fire gets too big for local government to handle, the feds – read: federal taxpayers – step in and foot the bill. Fighting wildfire accounts for nearly half of the U.S. Forest Service budget, and national wildfire fighting costs have averaged $1.8 billion annually since 2008. If communities had to pay their portion of the astronomical bill, they would have an incentive to implement policies to keep costs manageable.
- Full-cost accounting of wildfires. Shift the conversation around the cost of wildfires to show the full scale of federal taxpayer dollars spent, rather than keeping it fragmented into how much each agency spends in the event of a fire. Disrupted economies, lives lost and everything in between would be pinned to local government. Portions of that full-cost figure are already accounted for – like annual economic losses from wildﬁres have averaged $1.3 billion since 2000, almost ﬁve times the annual average of the 1980s.
- Tiered homeowner insurance rates. The more mitigation a homeowner does on their own dime – like thinning trees, removing underbrush, building with fireproof materials and installing sprinklers – the lower the cost of their insurance. The less mitigation, the higher insurance would cost – or, they would have no access to insurance at all.
- Other existing zoning tools. Numerous urban planning tools already exist that could enable authorities to implement fire-risk planning for the 84 percent. Cluster zoning places buildings in close proximity while maximizing open space, performance zoning controls the intensity of land use, and transferable development rights allow for building rights to move from a place where development is discouraged or prohibited to a zone where it is encouraged. But currently, these development tools are generally not applied with wildfire risk in mind.
- Standardized, robust data collection. Surprisingly, there is no mandated, centralized public data collection around wildfire – a gap that agencies and groups like Headwaters fill piecemeal. This is particularly controversial in terms of tracking wildfire-related deaths; nobody can seem to agree on a single data set.
Kathy Clay, Teton County, Wyo.’s outspoken fire marshal, acknowledges that she attended the forum, where she was popular for her discussion of “suicide subdivisions” – neighborhoods where firefighters have only one way in, no access to water or aerial support, and no way out if the fire spreads behind them. Clay wants the blunt phrase to draw attention to the rising human costs of wildfire.
“Firefighters have an obligation to defend structures, but we don’t have an obligation to put people in harm’s way,” Clay said in an interview.
Some forum participants fear that although these radical ideas are finally up for discussion, we may still be a long way from practical policy changes.
“Whether it’s seismic hazards, floods or fires, you can debate these issues for years – but inevitably it’s some catastrophic disaster that finally gets us to turn a corner,” said Lloyd Burton, professor of public policy at the University of Colorado, Denver. Yet we've seen several megafires in recent years and policy remains inadequate to address the possibility of future catastrophes.
Rasker’s “firetopia” may be a distant dream, yet he’s hopeful as he moves into the next phase: distilling and prioritizing forum outputs into palatable policy propositions, then presenting them to lawmakers in Washington, D.C., spring.
“As long as we’re talking about the 84 percent, as long as we’re finally talking about the undeveloped portion of the WUI,” Rasker said, “we’re making progress.”
Christi Turner is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets at Christi_Mada.