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Mitigating the Wildfire Threat to Your Community

Darlene Rini, PE + Carol Henson

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Aug 22, 2019

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. In 2017, the Camp Fire in Paradise, California spread across 153,336 acres, displacing 52,000 people, destroying 19,000 buildings and causing 86 deaths. When the dust settled, the direct financial cost was close to $13 billion.

These figures reflect how damaging the direct costs of wildland fires can be, but what they don’t include are the countless, ongoing indirect costs to social capital, health, environment and local/regional economies.

Is My Community at Risk?

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 wildland fire 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 are 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 fires involves accounting for socio-economic characteristics, coping capacities, as well as overall resiliency at the individual and community level.
  • 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.