Dr. Jack Cohen presenting on the role of local conditions and characteristics in home ignitability. Photo credit: Headwaters Economics, 2019

Building for Wildfire Summit: Understanding How Homes Burn and How to Build Better

By: Kimiko Barrett, Ph.D.

Topic: Defensible space / Firewise Fuels treatment / Prescribed fire WUI codes & ordinances

Type: Best Practices

The wildland-urban interface problem is a home ignition problem, not a wildfire control problem. Extreme wildfires are inevitable but wildland-urban fire disasters don’t have to be.

~Jack Cohen, Ph.D., U.S. Forest Service, Retired

For many of us, the thesis of Dr. Jack Cohen is not entirely new. Much of what we know about how a home burns down—and worst case, the sequence of events resulting in entire communities burning down—is due to the seminal research of Cohen and others.

Yet for a group of builders, developers, architects, planners and elected officials who gathered in Big Sky, Montana, a few weeks ago, the concept of the home ignition zone was a unique and intriguing idea. As part of the Southwest Montana Building for Wildfire Summit, Cohen encouraged the audience to recognize the important role that local conditions and characteristics of a home play in reducing overall wildfire risks to communities.

Hosted by the Big Sky Fire Department and the Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire (CPAW) program, the Building for Wildfire Summit expanded on Cohen’s research to identify best practices for building homes to higher wildfire-resistant standards.

Daniel Gorham, a Research Engineer with the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS), presented a series of videos demonstrating how the roof, decking, siding and near-home landscaping are the most vulnerable components of a home to wildfire. A recent study by Headwaters Economics and IBHS found that in Montana, these components can be built with wildfire-resistant building materials for relatively the same costs as typical combustible building materials.

Other resort communities are facing challenges similar to Big Sky and are addressing wildfire risks with land use planning tools that regulate how, where and under what conditions new development can occur. Mountain towns such as Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Vail, Colorado, for example, apply building codes, zoning and regulations requiring wildfire-resistant landscaping and building techniques in high-hazard areas.

Big Sky Wildfire Summit participants

Building for Wildfire Summit, Big Sky, Montana. September 2019. Photo credit: Headwaters Economics

Building off the momentum of the Summit, Park County, Montana is currently in the early stages of organizing a similar event with assistance from CPAW. Park County sits just to the north of Yellowstone National Park and is experiencing increasing home development in areas highly exposed to wildfires. In partnership with the planning department, emergency services and local fire personnel, the event will promote the science and research supporting building to wildfire-resistant standards.

The Summit underscored the need to bring the construction industry and others outside the wildfire community into conversations about increasing home development in wildfire-prone areas and identifying opportunities to reduce risks. Creating wildfire-resistant homes, and in turn fire-adapted communities, requires us to reach outside our usual circles of influence and work with partners across the table. The wildland-urban interface problem is not going away, and we have the science and research to build better and safer homes.

For additional resources and links about the Building for Wildfire Summit, please visit:

About the Author:

Kimiko Barrett is a Research and Policy Analyst with Headwaters Economics, based in Bozeman, Montana, and is the project lead for their wildfire research. Kimi is also the policy lead for the Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire (CPAW) program, a joint partnership between Headwaters Economics and Wildfire Planning International that provides professional land use planning and consulting services to help communities reduce wildfire risks.



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4 thoughts on “Building for Wildfire Summit: Understanding How Homes Burn and How to Build Better”

  1. Wesley Keller says:

    Thank you for everyone’s work on making this information available for those of us who were not able to attend.
    Once again the evidence suggest, as it has since I took my first structural fire code enforcement course in 1979, that there are times “The pen is mightier than the sword”.
    Developing and enforcing building codes, regulations and meaningful land use planning would go along way in solving many of our WUI related issues. That doesn’t mean we can put down our sword, it just means there are times we need to exchange the sword for a clipboard.

  2. Rebecca Samulski says:

    This looks like an awesome, well attended event. I would be curious to know what kind of attendance you had from the building community and how far away builders and developer may have traveled for this.

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