Living on the Edge: Volume 6


Table of contents

(15 chapters)
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This book is divided into four parts: (1) Institutions and policy, (2) The economics of hazards, (3) Community involvement, and (4) Management and ecology. The first section contains four chapters that cover the issue of wildfire from historical and institutional perspectives. “Forest fire history: learning from disaster” by Roger Kennedy (Chapter 2) addresses the pressures and politics giving rise to the current situation. “Fire Policy in the Urban–Wildland Interface in the United States: What are the Issues and Possible Solutions?” (Chapter 3) by Scott Stephens and Brandon Collins provides a summary of the problems associated with wildfire hazards in UWI communities, discusses fuels-treatment options for local governments and property owners, and analyzes challenges to planning, drawing on experiences from Australia. “Wildfire hazard mitigation as “safe” smart growth” (Chapter 4) by Robert Paterson looks at how smart growth principals are being adapted to fire-safe land use planning and zoning, including a discussion of the role of regional coordination and state-level planning requirements. “Practical and institutional constraints on adopting wide-scale prescribed burning: lessons from the mountains of California” (Chapter 5) by Kurt Menning details the problems of fuel accumulation due to suppression, the potential power of prescribed burning as a management tool, and the social and regulatory obstacles to implementing wide-scale prescribed burning programs.

Recent hurricanes, dust storms, and wild fires have presented great learning opportunities that have largely been missed, yet still may stimulate improvements in currently dominant policies driving settlement of large numbers of Americans into places exposed to fire, dust, and flood. Equivalent opportunities led to large and beneficial alterations in policy during the administrations of Presidents Hayes, Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, Franklin Roosevelt, and Eisenhower, when changes sprang from recognition that federal subsidy programs and land allocations channel settlement. Induced by public policies acting like magnets under the tables of their lives, millions of Americans, like iron filings, have been migrating into increasing peril of fire and flood; it is not only possible to slow this down, but even to encourage settlement away from areas recurrently subject to natural disaster. Tax-payer subsidies, systematically contrived in the Cold War period to disperse the older industrial centers lest they be readily obliterated by Soviet nuclear weapons, are still in place, though the Cold War has thawed, and the world now presents challenges toward which Cold War policy is not only inept but making matters worse.

The urban–wildland interface (UWI) poses a series of challenges to both rural and urban communities in the United States. Some efforts have been developed to promote the use of fire-resistant building materials and creation of defensible space; few comprehensive laws address the threat of external ignitions on structures. Most problems associated with the private side of the UWI are centered on land planning methods. Communities and counties must be encouraged to take more active roles in wildfire protection and this will require a fundamentally new method of land planning and review authority. Without substantial changes in land planning, we will continue to experience large losses of structures and life in the UWI.

Over the last 30 years, despite immense and increasing expenditures by the federal government for disaster preparedness and relief, both catastrophic and chronic losses from natural hazards have continued to increase at an alarming pace. Although earthquakes, floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes account for the largest portion of these natural hazard losses, wildfire increasingly represents significant disaster losses of well over a billion dollars annually. There is considerable concern that losses from wildfires will only increase in the U.S. as some of the highest growth rates in the nation, both metropolitan and nonmetropolitan types of growth, are projected to continue in states with extensive wildland fire hazard areas. The land development patterns associated with that growth are problematic because so much of the development in the last 30 years (and that is still occurring) is not being steered away from the highest wildfire hazard settings, nor are adequate steps being taken to ensure that when development occurs in high wildfire hazard zones appropriate mitigation is used to reduce the vulnerability of people and property to loss. Fortunately, those anticipated future wildfire losses have a great potential to be reduced provided state and local governments take the initiative to create partnerships to ensure “safer” and “smarter” patterns of land development occur in and near wildland–urban interface areas. This chapter explores wildfire mitigation planning as an integral component of “safe smart growth” for wildland–urban interface communities.

Forests too thick with fuels that are too continuously spread to resist fire are common throughout the west. After a century or more of actively working to suppress fire across the landscape, we now recognize that fire is a part of our forests, shrublands, and range, and that it will come whether we wish it or not. At last, managers must realize forests cannot be fire-proofed (DellaSala, Williams, Williams, & Franklin, 2004). We must work with fire rather than against it.

This paper analyzes the effects on housing prices of fire hazard disclosure in real estate transactions. In 1998, California passed the Natural Hazard Disclosure Law (AB 1195), which requires sellers to fill out a form disclosing to potential buyers whether their residence is in a statutory flood, wildfire, or seismic zone. This study looks specifically at whether homes in designated wildfire hazard zones in California saw any drop in value following this law. We found that location in a statutory fire zone is actually associated with a 3% positive price premium both before and after AB 1195, probably due to the unmeasured amenity values associated with location in the urban–rural interface. However, the combination of proximity to recent fire perimeters and post-AB 1195 disclosure does have a negative effect on selling price. After AB 1195, homes in statutory fire hazard zones that were within five kilometers of the perimeter of a major and recent fire sold on average for 5.1% (or $10,600) less than comparable homes that were in statutory fire zones but not near the perimeter of a recent fire, while no such differential exists prior to the law. This indicates that state-level fire-disclosure requirements prior to AB1195 (which were numerous, but vague, limited to fewer hazard zones, and poorly enforced) were inadequate. Therefore, while disclosure on its own does not appear to have influenced the real estate market in all statutory fire zones, it does negatively impact prices when in combination with proximity to a recent major fire.

California is no stranger to disaster.

This chapter discusses two California policies that unintentionally promote development in fire-prone areas. First is the state's Fair Access to Insurance Requirements (FAIR) Plan, a state-regulated statutory insurance industry association that provides basic insurance to property owners who are unable to obtain it in the private market. FAIR Plan was intended to be an insurer of last resort for rare cases when the private sector was unwilling to provide coverage. A functioning insurance market should discourage development in hazardous lands by charging appropriately priced premiums or denying coverage where hazards are extreme. The FAIR Plan short circuits this mechanism and subsidizes development in highly hazardous environments by forcing insurers to provide coverage at a price that is far below what the market would charge. While FAIR Plan was envisioned to fill a need for a small number of homeowners who could not otherwise obtain insurance, instead enrollment in this program has skyrocketed. The second policy relates to how the state maps very high fire hazard severity zones (VHFHSZ), statutory zones designed for designating hazardous lands in urban and suburban jurisdictions with their own fire departments. Numerous legal loopholes have given communities wide leeway to keep land within their boundaries from being designated as VHFHSZ for disclosure and fire zoning purposes, even if those lands are objectively hazardous according to the state's criteria. Of most concern with these loopholes is the fact that California's natural hazard real estate transfer disclosure standard relies on these maps, meaning that homebuyers in communities that use these loopholes may be led into a false sense of security when purchasing a home because the statutory Natural Hazard Disclosure form presented prior to transfer asserts that no known wildfire hazard exists.

Community-based fire management (CBFiM) integrates community action with the standard elements of fire management and mitigation, such as prescribed fire (managed beneficial fires for reducing hazardous fuel loads, controlling weeds, preparing land for cultivation, reducing the impact of pests and diseases, etc.), mechanical fuel treatment, defensible space planning, wildfire awareness and prevention, preparedness planning, and suppression of wildfires. In developed examples of CBFiM, communities are empowered to have effective input into land and fire management and problem solving and to self regulate to respond to fire and other emergencies. Its premise is that local people usually have most at stake in the event of a harmful fire, so they should clearly be involved in mitigating these unwanted events.

Wildfire researchers have typically focused on the formal social relationships and organizational structures of community and community leadership in analyzing fire preparedness and planning. This may be reasonable given the policy positions of natural resource agencies charged with management of wildfires on large public lands, particularly in the American West. When fires are allowed to burn on public lands, there are inherent risks to communities located in the path of the burn. Formal relationships between federal and state agencies and local communities (particularly with local government leaders and other people in positions of authority and power), therefore, are critical in maintaining clear communications, in reducing potential dangers, and in providing appropriate responses when wildfire dangers occur. The scholarly research in this area has a clearly applied focus, and much of it also has a “top-down” orientation that reflects the resource agency funding that underwrites this work. The relevance is clear: resource managers are charged to identify persons and groups “with a stake” in the outcome of resource management policies, and to evaluate the outcomes of agency-designed educational and outreach programs for affected publics.

This paper describes the application of, enhancements to, and use of surface fire spread models in predicting and mitigating fire risk in the Wildland–Urban Interface (WUI). Research and fire management strategies undertaken in the East Bay Hill region (containing the 1991 Tunnel Fire) of the San Francisco Bay area over the past decade are reported. We ascertain that surface fire spread modeling has impacted policy and decision making, resulting in a regional strategic plan where large landowners and public agencies are able to implement fire mitigation practices. Although these practices involve extensive fuel management within a buffer zone between the wildland and residential properties, the residential property owners are still at risk, as no strategy within neighborhoods can be accurately mapped using the current scale of the data and models. WUI fires are eventually extinguished by fire fighters on the ground, up close, and at the backyard scale. We argue that large-scale (backyard scale) mapping and modeling of surface fire spread is necessary to engage the individual homeowner in a fuels management strategy. We describe our ongoing research and strategies, and suggest goals for future research and development in the area of large-scale WUI fire modeling and management.

Public agencies entrusted with fire management in the western U.S. are faced with a decision each time a fire starts: should it be suppressed, or should it be left to burn? In some cases, fires that have not been rapidly staffed and suppressed have later proved very expensive and dangerous to suppress; and in other cases, fires that would never have caused large impacts are suppressed, missing an opportunity to reduce fuel loading and to cycle nutrients. In this chapter, the command structure through which these decisions are made is reviewed in basic terms, and a description is provided of how a fire goes from initial detection to being staffed by firefighters involved in fire suppression. Initial attack resources are discussed with an emphasis on the aerially delivered firefighters who often are responsible for suppressing remote fires. Finally, opportunities to improve the process of making fire suppression decisions are explored, and potential decision-support systems integrating firefighter knowledge with emerging technologies are discussed.

Climate change during the next century is likely to significantly influence forest ecosystems in the western United States, including indirect effects on forest and shrubland fire regimes. Further exacerbation of fire hazards by the warmer, drier summers projected for much of the western U.S. by climate models would compound already elevated fire risks caused by 20th century fire suppression. This has potentially grave consequences for the urban–wildland interface in drier regions, where residential expansion increasingly places people and property in the midst of fire-prone vegetation. Understanding linkages between climate variability and change, therefore, are central to our ability to forecast future risks and adapt land management, allocation of fire management resources, and suburban planning accordingly. To establish these linkages we review previous research and draw inferences from our own retrospective work focused on 20th century climate–fire relationships in the U.S. Pacific Northwest (PNW). We investigated relationships between the two dominant modes of climate variability affecting the PNW, which are Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) and El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO), and historic fire activity at multiple spatial scales. We used historic fire data spanning most of the 20th century for USDA Forest Service Region 6, individual states (Idaho, Oregon, and Washington), and 20 national forests representative of the region's physiographic diversity. Forest fires showed significant correlations with warm/dry phases of PDO at regional and state scales; relationships were variable at the scale of individual national forests. Warm/dry phases of PDO were especially influential in terms of the occurrence of very large fire events throughout the PNW. No direct statistical relationships were found between ENSO and forest fires at regional scales, although relationships may exist at smaller spatial scales. However, both ENSO and PDO were correlated with summer drought, as estimated by the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI), and PDSI was correlated with fire activity at all scales. Even moderate (±0.3°C decadal mean) fluctuations in PNW climate over the 20th century have influenced wildfire activity based on our analysis. Similar trends have been reported for other regions of the western U.S. Thus, forest fire activity has been sensitive to past climate variability, even in the face of altered dynamics due to fire suppression, as in the case of our analysis. It is likely that fire activity will increase in response to future temperature increases, at the same or greater magnitude as experienced during past climate variability. If extreme drought conditions become more prevalent we can expect a greater frequency of large, high-intensity forest fires. Increased vulnerability to forest fires may worsen the current fire management problem in the urban–wildland interface. Adaptation of fire management and restoration planning will be essential to address fire hazards in areas of intermingled exurban development and fire-prone vegetation. We recommend: (1) landscape-level strategic planning of fire restoration and containment projects; (2) better use of climatic forecasts, including PDO and ENSO related predictions; and (3) community-based efforts to limit further residential expansion into fire-prone forested and shrubland areas.

Publication date
Book series
Advances in the Economics of Environmental Resources
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
Book series ISSN