Editors’ Note: Molly Mowery, AICP, is the Executive Director of the Community Wildfire Planning Center, a nonprofit organization focusing on supporting communities through offering programs, tools, resources and expertise that are practical, cost-effective and measurably reduce wildfire risk. Molly is a certified land use planner focused on how community development decisions can affect wildfire outcomes. Here Molly shares recently published research results looking at four western states’ land use planning strategies, legislation and regulations and how that impacts – positively and negatively – wildfire risk in the WUI. Molly shares how smart and forward-thinking land use planning can help communities live better with wildfire.
How Land Use Planning Can Help Communities Better Prepare for Wildfire
Oftentimes in my work, I hear the question “how can land use planning actually address the wildfire problem?” As a land use planner specializing in wildfire for more than fifteen years, I am always excited to share my perspective on this question. I’ve been working with—and learning from—state and local governments across North America and have seen firsthand how successfully implemented land use planning strategies can address wildfire in multiple ways. These strategies can include a variety of approaches, such as adopting subdivision regulations, updating comprehensive plans and other codes and employing land use planning expertise more holistically.
Smart and forward thinking land use planning strategies can directly affect wildfire outcomes by 1) determining if development is allowed in wildfire-prone areas; and 2) specifying the type of mitigation measures that must be followed to address wildfire threats. For example, a local government can adopt a wildfire hazard map and require that a proposed new development adhere to subdivision regulations in high fire hazard areas. These regulations may include ensuring an adequate supply of water is available, increasing the setback of homes from steep slopes, thinning vegetation and reducing the length of dead-end roads. In this way, there is a direct connection between the land use planning requirements that are on the books and the buildings and neighborhood being built.
In other cases, local decisions can indirectly influence wildfire outcomes by setting up a resilient and adaptable policy framework and vision for the built and natural environments. For example, a state government can legislate local governments to adopt comprehensive plans—a long-term plan that directs growth and development within a community—and require that these plans include a chapter on natural hazards. This prompts communities to consider wildfire during their overall planning process and growth priorities. Employing the lens of natural hazards in the comprehensive planning process also has wide reaching benefits across the community beyond wildfire. These plans often engage community members in their visioning and drafting process and therefore helps to further educate on hazards. It can also lead to integration with other local plans and it sets the stage for meaningful implementation of all of the community’s regulations, programs or incentives. Comprehensive plans then serve as the backbone of the community’s vision for how they want their community to look and function into the future.
What Does and Doesn’t Work in Current Land Use Planning Strategies
The Community Wildfire Planning Center (CWPC), the nonprofit organization where I serve as Executive Director, recently took a more in-depth look at how state and local governments in California, Colorado, Montana and Washington are using land use planning strategies to address wildfire. Our research, funded through a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, analyzed each state’s framework, policies and plans and assessed legislative requirements or barriers that influence land use planning in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). The WUI is where the built environment meets the natural environment and it is where land use planning strategies can have a big impact in how wildfire spreads. We wanted to better understand how each state approaches wildfire policy and regulation through land use planning, and to identify potential opportunities for reducing wildfire risk to communities in the future. We found some surprising and interesting results that illustrate that there are many opportunities within each state and across all four states to advance WUI risk reduction objectives through land use planning. The full report is available on our website and includes our findings as well as five recommended solutions to advancing land use planning as a strategy for reducing wildfire risk to communities.
Here are some of the highlights of our findings:
State planning legislation inconsistently addresses hazards
Three of the four states were lacking a robust approach that incorporates wildfire into comprehensive planning. For example, jurisdictions (counties or municipalities) in Montana are not required to adopt a growth policy (equivalent to a comprehensive plan). Colorado only requires that municipalities (not counties) address hazards in their master plan. Washington only requires some cities and counties to adopt comprehensive plans (per the state’s Growth Management Act)—and for those that do, natural hazards is an optional element. On the opposite end of the spectrum, California not only requires that all municipalities and counties adopt a general plan, but they also require a broad set of policy requirements related to wildfire that gets reviewed by CAL FIRE (the state fire agency).
Land use planners are inadvertently left out of the equation
One of the major observations in conducting our research was that state governments typically delegate state WUI planning responsibilities to departments specialized in managing natural resources and wildfire response. These departments are outstanding in their ability to undertake wildfire hazard or risk assessments, conduct resident outreach and education on wildfire risk and perform related services. However, with the exception of California, all other states’ natural resource departments (Montana, Washington, Colorado) do not include trained land use planners. This creates a technical gap when tasked with developing, disseminating or advocating for land use regulations, policy requirements, guidance and other materials that target the WUI. Widening the table to include land use planning expertise together with natural resource and wildfire response departments can help craft a more holistic approach to safe development in the WUI.
The future is uncertain
Another major takeaway is how many factors create an uncertain future in terms of the extent to which communities may experience worsening wildfire conditions and whether the WUI continues to expand. Warmer, drier conditions and a longer fire season due to climate change will increase wildfire risk in terms of probability, frequency and intensity. In addition, population growth is projected in each of the four states. The question is: how and where will the WUI expand? And the answer to that is less certain and more dependent on a variety of factors. For example, the digitalization of work and commerce, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, is allowing more people to work and shop from home or other remote locations and that may affect how many more people move to suburban or rural areas. Currently, there is not enough comprehensive research on the pandemic’s effect on the housing market or on population migration patterns. Other uncertainties, such as home insurance and real estate prices in high-risk areas, may also influence whether the WUI continues to expand. Considering uncertainties when making decisions that affect long-term WUI outcomes is critical for solving—rather than deepening—community wildfire vulnerabilities.
These are just a few of the barriers, opportunities and trends highlighted in the report. The full report provides more in-depth analysis of legislation and shares suggested resources that offer practical guidance on the development and implementation of different land use planning tools. One resource worth mentioning here is the American Planning Association’s Planning the Wildland-Urban Interface, a report which provides additional context on the WUI, fire behavior and ignition concepts for the built environment and a deeper look at land use planning tools and best practices for overcoming adoption barriers.
Land use planning strategies and tools have long been recognized as among the most rational and cost-effective solutions to reducing community risks to natural hazards. It’s imperative to take action now on implementing these solutions. Western communities are increasingly facing trends and uncertainties that will continue to put pressure on the WUI—this includes accelerating impacts of climate change, population growth and shifting land use patterns shaped by changing commuter patterns, housing affordability and lifestyle preferences. Collectively, these factors could both expand the footprint of the WUI and increase the devastation of wildfires. Forward-thinking land use planning policies and regulations serve an important role in helping state and local governments address wildfire risk for communities today and into the future.
Molly Mowery has dedicated her career to helping communities tackle the growing challenges of community planning, wildfire, and environmental resilience. With more than fifteen years of experience, Molly has developed and managed national wildfire programs in partnership with organizations, including Fire Adapted Communities, Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire, and REALFire®. She has also designed and delivered national trainings to educate land use planners and fire professionals on how community development decisions can affect wildfire outcomes. Molly co-founded and serves as the Executive Director for the Community Wildfire Planning Center. She also founded Wildfire Planning International, a land use and wildfire mitigation planning consulting firm. Molly is a member of the American Planning Association, serves on the Sustainable Development Code Advisory Council, and is lead author of Planning Advisory Service Report 594: Planning the Wildland-Urban Interface. She earned a Bachelor’s degree from Naropa University and a Master’s degree in City Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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