“We made too many wrong mistakes.” Yogi Berra.
This quote from catcher/philosopher Yogi Berra is actually somewhat profound. We all make mistakes that have little bearing on our lives — thinking, for instance, that we look great in those cargo shorts! But it’s the wrong mistakes that can really hurt, like our propensity for building homes in places that we know are highly vulnerable to disasters. Building on barrier islands and along the coast in hurricane-prone areas come to mind. Interestingly, one of the fastest growing hazards in the nation is the dramatic increase of people and homes in wildfire-prone areas.
I was reminded of this when one of our research staff took the photo above in the Florida Panhandle. The photo shows a new home being built in an area that had experienced multiple wildfires and continues to have naturally occurring highly flammable vegetation.
The hazardous location of the home in the photo is far from unique. Approximately 99 million people nationwide live in the vulnerable Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). The WUI is the area where development intermixes with forestlands and vegetation that are fire dependent and also fire prone. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, the size of the WUI grew by 33 percent nationwide from 1990 to 2010 and now includes more than 46 million homes.
It is easy to understand why so many people want to live in and near forests. Naturalist E.O. Wilson said, “Just being surrounded by bountiful nature rejuvenates and inspires.” For many, being surrounded by forestland is an antidote to the challenges of living in crowded, sprawling suburbs. However, fire dependent forests throughout the U.S., but especially in the West, have not been adequately maintained due to a complex set of factors. These include a lack of funding, historical fire suppression, workforce capacity shortages, and several interrelated issues that reduce our ability to use beneficial prescribed fire, which is critical for preventing or mitigating wildfire. Compounding this is a changing climate — including years-long droughts and record-breaking heat — that exacerbate conditions favorable for wildfire in the WUI.
The result of these factors is not surprising. Many of the largest and most damaging wildfires in U.S. history have occurred in the last decade including fires that have burned tens of millions of acres of forests; destroyed thousands of homes, businesses, and even large portions of entire towns; and resulted in the loss of life among the public and far too many of our wildland firefighters. 2023 marks the 10th anniversary of the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona which killed 19 wildland firefighters in the WUI.
Importantly, local governments play a key role in helping to break the cycle of building in harm’s way. The American Planning Association publication Planning the Wildland-Urban Interface, provides excellent guidance to communities seeking to reduce the threat to homes already in the WUI and to steer future growth away from fire prone forests and toward existing communities.
Planners at the local level are well-positioned to successfully incorporate wildfire concerns and lessons learned (such as the indispensable role of prescribed fire) through all phases of the community planning process — including community visioning, developing comprehensive plans, district or neighborhood plans, zoning codes, and building codes; and even adopting fire-wise landscaping regulations.
Just as strong public support for land conservation is essential, so is strong public backing for planners and other decision-makers working to create communities that are more resilient to the wildfire hazard so prevalent in our country today.