A wildfire forum takes radical approach to protecting wildland-urban interface

 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE ASSOCIATE
    Job Announcement: Environmental Justice Associate Announcement date: June 18, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: July 13,...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE
    Job Announcement: Communications Associate Announcement date: June 18, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: July 13, 2021...
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Wild Public Lands (COWPL), based in Basalt, is an exciting nonprofit working to keep public lands open and accessible. Our growing organization is seeking...
  • BUSINESS SUPPORT ASSISTANT (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time business support assistant to provide...
  • SOCIAL MEDIA AND DIGITAL ADVERTISING SPECIALIST
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening for a full-time Social Media and Digital Advertising Specialist. This position...
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a development professional to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a letter...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. At least 8-10 years of experience...
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER AND BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring for two positions. We seek a Communications Manager to execute inspiring and impactful communications...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • FISHERIES BIOLOGIST
    Under the direct supervision of the Director of Shoshone-Paiute Tribe's Fish, Wildlife & Parks, in coordination with the Tribal Programs Administrator and the Tribal Chairman,...
  • REGIONAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR NORTHERN ROCKIES, PRAIRIES & PACIFIC REGION
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
  • STEWARDSHIP MANAGER
    STEWARDSHIP MANAGER Job Vacancy and Description Posted June 2, 2021: Open until filled The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit, regional land trust...
  • KSJD - MORNING EDITION HOST/REPORTER
    KSJD is seeking a host/reporter. Please see for www.ksjd.org for more information. EEO compliant.
  • ON THE EDGE OF CEDAR MESA/BEARS EARS
    Quiet, comfy house for rent in Bluff, Utah. Walk to San Juan River. Bike or hike to many nearby ruins and rock art sites. Beautiful...
  • CARPENTER AND LABORER WANTED.
    Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rain forest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg meadows,...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Title: Project Manager Reports To: Program Director Salary Range: Negotiable; starting at $60,000 Location: Bend, OR The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Project Manager to...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Deschutes River Conservancy seeks a Program Director to join our dynamic team in restoring streamflow and improving water quality in the Deschutes Basin. WHO...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....