Photo Credit: A golf course served as a wildfire mitigation resource during a 2016 Colorado wildfire. Photo by Krzysztof Urbanowicz via Flickr Creative Commons

Increased development in the wildland-urban interface has been well documented as a contributing factor to rising wildfire suppression and response costs, as highlighted in this Headwaters Economics report and this University of Wyoming Study. As many communities are likely to continue developing in wildfire-prone areas, greater attention should be given to the role of land use planning. While mitigation regulations such as building and land use codes are often used to address wildfire, practitioners can also explore the potential role of community features such as open spaces, parks and golf courses when considering wildfire risk reduction strategies.

Thoughtful land use planning creates opportunities that can serve multiple purposes within a community. For example, community parks simultaneously offer different users the experience of passive and active recreation, allow for the preservation of natural areas and encourage alternative forms of transportation to destinations. This idea of multi-purpose design can also be applied to wildfire risk mitigation by designing and implementing community amenities that reduce fuels, allow easy access for suppression forces and meet other community objectives, such as providing recreation and open space.

This multi-functional amenity approach was recently put to the test during the “285 Fire” in Lakewood, Colorado. The 285 Fire started on September 27, 2016, off Highway 285, west of Denver. The 13-acre fire burned in “flashy fuels,” including grass, brush and decorative landscaping. Burning with moderate intensity with 1- to 4-foot flames, the fire had the potential to grow quickly.

Due to the fire’s proximity to the Homestead Golf Course, firefighters were able to utilize the golf course cart path to access the fire quickly. Further, Highway 285 and a nearby recreational trail that runs through adjacent open space provided other pre-existing access pathways. In addition, portions of the irrigated golf course also served as anchor points and pre-constructed fire lines. In coordination with the incident commander, golf course employees redirected the course’s sprinkler heads towards the wildfire. This allowed the West Metro Fire Department to concentrate the majority of its resources on the most threatening parts of the fire. During the incident, the only structural damage was minor and done to one of the golf course’s sprinkler heads. Amazingly, the course stayed open and golfers continued to play their rounds throughout the fire.

Golf carts travelling on a golf course, the outline of which also marks the boundary of a recent wildfire.

The outline of the fairway, which was the edge of the burn footprint shows the effectiveness of the golf course as a fuel break. The course never closed due to the fire. Credit: Ben Yellin, Wildfire Planning International

Although the golf course was not designed with wildfire risk reduction objectives in mind, it serves as an example of how a community feature can also minimize a wildfire’s impact. It also highlights the multi-functionality and benefits such amenity areas can provide to meet community and hazard planning benefits.

Landscape view of some of the golf cart paths and the nearby trail bridge.

The trail bridge and cart paths provided quick access for fire suppression crews. Credit: Ben Yellin, Wildfire Planning International

Incorporating these concepts into early planning conversations, such as discussions regarding future subdivisions, will bolster a community’s ability to plan areas with multiple purposes in mind. Ideally, developers, public land managers and local agencies should engage in this dialogue. There is also the potential to incorporate new policies into local plans, including Comprehensive Plans and/or Park and Recreation Plans, to promote these approaches. The Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire (CPAW) program promotes these and other planning best practices at the scale of cities and counties. CPAW offers many examples of communities addressing wildfire through land use planning and may be a helpful resource when working on multi-function design.

Editor’s note: Ben works as an Associate Planner at Wildfire Planning International (WPI). CPAW is co-managed by WPI and Headwaters Economics.

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