Darlene Rini, PE

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Sep 16, 2020

This post was originally published on August 29, 2019 and has been updated with recent information.

Beginning in mid-August, multiple wildfires triggered by an unprecedented number of lightning strikes and exacerbated by record heat waves have spread across California. These fires have consumed more than two million acres and destroyed more than 4,200 structures. This sets a record for the largest wildfire season in California history, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. It’s still too early to estimate the short and long-term impact these wildfires will have on our communities and environment. However, the financial impacts, alone, will once again be at record levels in the billions of dollars.

Over the past two decades, growth in frequency, scale and severity of wildfires has highlighted the seriousness of an emerging global problem. In the “wildland urban interface” or WUI, where the wildlands meet our communities, wildfires are causing increasing levels of devastation.

While the financial losses may reflect how damaging the direct costs of wildland urban interface fires can be, they don’t include the countless, ongoing indirect costs to social capital, health, environment and local/regional economies.

Is My Community at Risk of Wildfire?

Your community may very well be at risk for wildland urban interface fires as wildfires have been part of the global landscape for millions of years. However, as extreme weather conditions from climate change, biomass accumulation and ongoing development in wildfire-prone areas increase, more communities will need to develop strategies that holistically mitigate the wildfire threat at local and landscape levels.

What You Can Do

The conventional approach is to funnel funds to firefighting operations and vegetation management. As we begin to realize how complex the devastation of WUI fires can be on communities, there’s an opportunity to take a more comprehensive and proactive approach to managing those risks. That means engaging whole communities in developing more holistic, interdisciplinary, science-based mitigation plans:

  • Know Thy Neighbor. Create relationships and build partnerships through public and stakeholder meetings. Collective action is critical to developing the most effective plans for the whole community.
  • Save vs. Sacrifice. Understand what, as a unique community, you value and want to protect. These could be of physical, financial, environmental, social, cultural or even emotional significance. Every community is different and will prioritize different things.
  • Map Out Your Hazards. What physical components in and around your community create a hazard? As an individual in a community, it can be hard to step away and be objective. It can also be overwhelming to make sense of all the technical resources, information and anecdotes that are out there. Sometimes, it’s helpful to rely on outside expertise to more objectively separate facts from fiction and identify the extent and significance of hazards threatening the community. For instance, vegetation is the primary fuel source for wildland fires. Enlisting experts to understand where wildland vegetation presents the greatest threat and how best to manage it to keep the community safe at minimal impact to natural resources, can be a valuable investment. Scientific research conducted by NIST and other groups has shown that making minor structural or cosmetic changes to homes and commercial buildings could drastically increase their resiliency to approaching wildland fires.
  • How Are You Vulnerable? Physical hazards aren’t the only aspects to consider. Evaluating your community’s vulnerabilities to wildland urban interface fires involves accounting for socio-economic characteristics, coping capacities, as well as overall resiliency at the individual and community level to respond and recover.
  • Create an Action Plan. Creating a unique action plan ensures your community is resilient, can appropriately respond during an emergency and can access resources during recovery post-event. This can be built through a combination of public agency and community-driven initiatives that all work together to keep the community safe.
  • Communicate. All the best laid plans become ineffective if you can’t communicate it to your community. Understanding how to reach the most people effectively will help to decrease loss of life, land, property and livelihood.

Protecting your WUI and community against a wildfire threat is a complex process. Learn more about emergency action plans and how to prepare your community.