Modern wildfires are no longer contained in just isolated realms of the environmental landscape. Today, many fires are encroaching on the urbanized fringe of countless communities. More specifically, the geographic spaces where urban/residential areas blend into wildfire-prone natural landscapes are referred to as wildland/urban interface (WUI) lands. Year after year, countless homes in the WUI are damaged or destroyed by wildfires. In addition to property loss, civilian and first responder casualties and fatalities are occurring. The International Code Council (ICC) has spearheaded the creation of a WUI Blue Ribbon Panel in an attempt to help identify improvements in national, state and local management of the escalating WUI fire problem.
Historically, the general human migration pattern found in the U.S. was that of rural to urban. At the turn of the centuries, cities were booming. Today, with the rise of technology, an older population and a more diversified economy, the migration trend has reversed. More people are moving from urban areas into rural areas. The result is a dramatic shift of population into wildland areas. This increased population is promoting dramatic changes in wildfire suppression. Lives of both homeowners and responders are at risk when wildfires burn through WUI areas, in addition to increased costs to all levels of government and dramatic insurance expenses.
The financial costs surrounding wildland/urban interface fire suppression are astounding. The annual WUI fire fighting costs exceed $4.3 billion for federal, state and local governments. Insurance claims annually exceed $1 billion. Clearly, the stakes are high for all parties involved in a WUI fire. When WUI fires cost billions of dollars each year to countless stakeholders, close examination of current policy and procedure should be executed. More than 65,000 communities in the U.S. have been designated as being at risk for wildland/urban interface fires. Fewer than 10% of these communities have adopted WUI code, completed wildfire protection plans or had their homes inspected by insurance companies for wildfire survivability. Given the statistics, what should communities do to better handle a WUI fire event?
Involving community leaders in any planning or code-development and adoption process would add to the benefits, as they could then respond to concerns from the citizens in their jurisdiction and promote the efforts of the emergency management community. The term "community leaders" is not only the political leaders of a community, but also the de facto leaders of areas and subdivisions, the actual leaders of the community.
Many rural communities tend to be more reluctant to adopt or enforce WUI code adoption — such codes that could better protect community infrastructure from WUI fire damage or loss. For example, regulating the minimum driveway width could allow for assurance that responders could reach homes at risk from a fire. Creating awareness in communities is critical.
In a 2007 study by the Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS), numerous WUI features were uncovered. For one, the survey indicated that homes on the perimeter of developments adjacent to wildlands are at the greatest risk for burning. Also, the study established that all homes could be protected, regardless of value, by implementing loss-reduction measures. The IBHS study also placed extreme importance on the roles of homeowners and policy makers in creating proactive, community-based, wildfire-reduction measures. Included in this group are insurance companies and real estate firms. The 40 organizations forming the WUI Blue Ribbon Panel consist of a wide range of stakeholders and policy makers involved in WUI fire management. All levels of government as well as private firms and organizations were represented. The aim of the panel is to better promote organization and collaboration with all entities involved in WUI fire suppression in an effort to minimize the threat to communities and fire personnel.
The panel established key findings and suggestions for improving the WUI fire threat. The Blue Ribbon Summit organized those findings into five key areas: education, incentives, mitigation, regulation and fire suppression. Outlined within these five categories are recommendations and approaches for mitigating the threat of wildland/urban interface fire.
When fire strikes a community in the WUI, homeowners and government agencies must be prepared. Communication between stakeholders, code development and implementation, and homeowner actions are simply the beginning of a trend that must spread across the more than 65,000 communities nationwide that are at risk for wildland/urban fire.
When looking back on the fire season 2009, it is hoped that signs of change will be seen. Now is the time for adoption of the recommendations put forth by the ICC-sponsored WUI Blue Ribbon Panel. To download a copy of the National Report, go to http://www.iccsafe.org/government/blueribbon/.
DAN W. BAILEY is the director of Wildland Fire Programs for the International Code Council. He spent over 35 years in wildland fire management for the federal government, including serving as the leader of the USDA Forest Service's National Wildland/Urban Interface Fire and Firewise programs. Bailey led the firefighting efforts on over 200 of the largest and most destructive U.S. wildfires during the past two decades, having served as the incident commander of a National Incident Management Team. He served on the board of directors of the National Fire Protection Association for 11 years and currently serves on the board of directors of the International Association of Wildland Fire.