How resilient is your community against forest fires?

Article By:

Intermediate Urban Designer

Last year’s crackling forest fires that devoured several hundred thousand acres of land and communities in its path re-ignited an age-old discussion.

Of course, the topic of climate change and mismanagement has been visited frequently over the years. However, the growing intensity and devastation of wildfires hint that they are closer than ever.

In addition to the looming threat posed by soaring temperatures, research suggests that humans cause 85% of forest fires in the US. Communities of indigenous populations worldwide fall victim to forest fires because of land grabbers and farmers who intentionally set fire as a deforestation tool.

Consider how lightning showers leading to the California forest fires set entire complexes ablaze. As a result, millions of people evacuate their homes in the middle of the night — hopes and homes turned to ashes in just a few hours.

Catastrophes upon catastrophes later, it is high time to ask, “How resilient is your community against forest fires?” And although you can’t fireproof towns and cities, here’s how you — as a community, can make them more resilient.

Wildfire management and community resilience

It is necessary to understand territorial planning on a larger scale, including significant changes in land and fire management policies. This approach can complement principles of adaptive and transformative resilience in our communities. Safe steps to strengthen our response and recovery from the wildfires in semi-urban areas include:

  • Comprehensive plan and management for built and natural environments.
  • Education and Training of community members and fire responders.
  • Risk Mitigation through building codes using highly resistant materials and landscape ecosystems.
  • Effective monitoring and response.

PhD. Kimiko Barrett’s latest research at Headwaters Economics studies how Land use planning can integrate wildfire mitigation measures directly into the development process using some of the following tools to reduce the risk.

  • Landscape regulations for homeowners to manage hazardous vegetation and control the type of planting surrounding their homes can be crucial in protecting or delaying the home ignition
  • Steep slope ordinances restrict development within high wildfire-risk areas
  • Forest management projects help reduce fuels between the wild land and urban areas
  • Revision of building codes can establish regulations for ignition resistant construction materials on new developments
  • Subdivision and design standards can help determine risk-reduction features, including evacuation routes, minimum road widths and utility supplies
  • Land preservation tools encourage agricultural lands to buffer development from wildfires 

As happens in every planning process, the plan needs to involve the thoughtful participation of policy-makers and the public’s cooperation. When the local government supports the community, there are more chances for success during the inevitable disasters.

Community resilience

A proactive and organized community is one of the best strategies to prevent, resist and restore after a natural disaster. The trained community can take the tools mentioned above into action to help wildfire mitigation.

Sometimes, fighting fire with fire is not such a bad idea. Taking a leaf out of the indigenous people’s books, controlled fires, and strategically thinning forests can help prevent a more significant disaster. Generally, treatment is focused on surrounding areas with smaller trees to create a buffer, leaving mature and fire-resistant trees as a canopy cover.

Alternatively, individual homeowners may indulge in proactive landscaping by building a buffer region around the house to provide safe zones for residents and firefighters alike. For example, maintaining about a five-foot non-combustible zone with a soil or stone surface to surround your property can be crucial in risk mitigation.

In the true spirit of community living, many volunteers have come together to form risk-mitigation groups, like the CWPP, to help implement the codes and standards. Moreover, it helps to keep the community up to date on any vulnerabilities.

Community wildfire protection plan

Does your area have a Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) in place? If not, it is perhaps time to take the initiative and get together with other members to establish one.

First, you may refer to existing neighbourhood groups or homeowners associations to form the CWPP team — either as a division or a separate entity. Anyhow, with their help, it may be easier to identify community members with previous experience in wildfire planning who may serve as promising candidates for a CWPP team.

That said, don’t lose hope if your community has never engaged in wildfire-related efforts and has to make do with benevolent — albeit inexperienced, volunteers. However, you may have to turn to other organizations, such as a public agency or consultant, and invest in training CWPP members.

Once you've established the CWPP, the members may have to spend the initial days surveying surrounding areas to identify high-risk zones and develop a plan. At the same time, these shared experiences of field trips and brainstorming sessions help build relationships and nurture a sense of being part of a team.

Fire resistant homes

Structural loss from fires often results from airborne embers that land on the roof or deck of a house. Sometimes, burnable materials, such as debris stuck in gutters and dried leaves around the property, help faster home ignition in a wildfire.

As mentioned before, revising local building codes and appropriate landscaping around the home can establish best practices for construction and deliver mitigation strategies to new developments. Likewise, the CWPP, with the help of local authorities, may implement the codes by conducting regular checks.

Opting for fire-resistant siding materials, such as stucco, concrete blocks, and bricks, even higher investment solutions, such as double-paned UV thermal glass windows, fireproof metal roofs, and rooftop sprinklers.  

Additionally, consider investing in non-flammable plants, avoiding tall grasses, and storing flammable structures, such as lawnmowers, furniture, and propane tanks, out of sight.

To sum it up

Recent forest fires have instilled a sense of urgency among many communities to mitigate the risk of wildfires. Although it is not always possible to avoid natural hazards, planning for prevention, resistance and resilience remain vital to maintaining our natural and built environments.

The Nadi Group design team is committed to helping municipalities and developers building strong and resilient communities that are environmentally sensitive to wildfires and other natural hazards while establishing the best planning, urban design and landscape practices to create a safer community.

3150 Livernois Road,
Unit 136
Troy, Michigan
Toll: 844-669-6234

289 Garry Street,
Unit 300
Winnipeg, Manitoba
R3C 1H9
Toll: 844-669-6234

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