Urban Lawyer

Planning for Wildfire in the Wildland-Urban Interface: A Guide for Western Communities

by Stephen R. Miller


Stephen R. Miller is an Associate Professor of Law, University of Idaho College of Law – Boise. A.B., Brown University; M.C.P, University of California, Berkeley; J.D., University of California, Hastings. The author serves as principal investigator on a three-year Landscape Scale Restoration Project Grant from the U.S. Forest Service, which is managed by the Idaho Department of Lands. He wishes to acknowledge and thank his colleagues on the grant, Thomas Wuerzer, Jaap Vos, and Eric Lindquist. He also wishes to thank Molly Mowery, Wildfire International, and Tyre Holfeltz, Idaho Department of Lands, for serving as invaluable tutors on all things wildfire. Alexander Grad and Brian Stephens provided excellent research assistance on this project during the 2015 — 16 academic year.

This project is funded in part by the Idaho Department of Lands in cooperation with the USDA Forest Service. In accordance with Federal law and U.S. Department of Agriculture policy, this institution is prohibited from discriminating on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, age, or disability. (Not all prohibited bases apply to all programs.) To file a complaint of discrimination, write USDA, Director, Office of Civil Rights, Room 326-W, Whitten Building, 1400 Independence Avenue, SW, Washington, DC 20250-9410 or call (202) 720-5964 (voice and TDD). USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.

I. Overview

MOST OF THE TECHNIQUES FOR WILDFIRE PLANNING in the Wildland-Urban Interface (“WUI”) (pronounced “Woo-E”) have been known for a long time, and they do not necessarily preclude or significantly impede development. So why is effective wildfire protection so rare in the WUI? This article contends that the primary reason why wildfire planning is so uncommon lies primarily in the fact that it is typically delegated to the fire function of federal, state, and local governments. Effective wildfire planning, however, requires active involvement of those governmental functions that entitle and regulate development, as well as on-going engagement by the local community that ultimately lives in those fire-prone communities. The primary goal of this article is to provide an approach to wildfire planning that integrates the development community — both regulator and regulated — in the process, as well as the community of citizens that live in potential paths of wildfires. To do so effectively, lawyers, planners, building officials and developers must understand key aspects of fire — from ecology, to how wildfire resources are allocated — while also bringing their own skill sets to bear on the problem. This article offers a four-step approach to planning for wildfire in the WUI, which is based upon hundreds of hours of talking with wildfire experts and communities around the West engaged in forward-looking approaches to the problem. The model presented here seeks to synthesize long-standing and emerging practices, as well as facilitate their broader adoption and implementation.

Section II explains the rising risk of wildfire, and also considers how we evaluate the cost of fire. While cost is often associated with wildfire suppression, there are numerous other long-term costs associated with fire, such as loss of recreational amenities, as well as increased risk of secondary hazards, such as flood and landslide, that must also be considered in evaluating the cost of fire.

Section III explains three important ways to think about the WUI, and why communities must utilize each of these three approaches in their wildfire planning. First, the WUI is a policy definition, the most important formulation of which is “where humans and their development meet or intermix with wildland fuel.”1 Numerous sociologists have also sought to define this area primarily according to the density of development.2 Second, the WUI is a legal definition that has a basis in statute and from which legal consequences flow, such as the availability of planning and relief funds.3 These legal definitions vary from statute to statute, and wildfire planning must be vigilant in tracking those federal, state and local WUI legal definitions that apply in a region. Third, it is important to recognize that the WUI is not a stagnant concept; rather, as a community develops, the WUI will change. What is a WUI today may well be a fully urbanized area in a decade; as a result, WUI wildfire planning must be updated to reflect the changed in a community’s urbanization, even if all other factors remain the same.

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