Hazards Planning Center

Planning for Wildfires

The APA Research Department has completed a cooperative agreement with the National Wildland/Urban Interface Fire Program to conduct research and prepare a PAS Report on planning for wildfires. This agreement furthers a partnership between APA and NWUIFP that began in 2002 when APA undertook a contract to perform an assessment of the national Firewise Communities training program, which the National Fire Protection Association has managed since 1999 in cooperation with the National Wildland/Urban Interface Fire Program. The completed report, Firewise Post-Workshop Assessment Final Report, is available from NFPA.

In the past decade, wildfires have gained the attention of urban planners as a serious issue facing development in what has come to be known as the wildland/urban interface, the area where residential development is interspersed amid various kinds of forest topography. The issue is not merely a western one — Florida, Long Island, the Upper Midwest, and other areas have experienced serious devastation from wildfires. In highly populated states like Florida and California, population growth has driven new development beyond existing metropolitan areas into the interface, forcing hard questions about the nature and design of new subdivisions. APA examined strategic points of intervention where better planning can help reduce the vulnerability of new development as well as provide better assessments of the suitability of such areas for any kind of development.

The Project

APA's research focused on two primary issues: (a) best practices in development design for wildfire hazard areas; and (b) comprehensive plan considerations for communities facing wildfire hazards. Specific areas of research concern for this project included:

  • A description of the known science of wildfire preconditions, ignition, topographic considerations, and flammability issues affecting development in the interface;
  • A historical overview of wildfire problems in the U.S. and the evolving response at various levels of government with regard to protecting developed areas;
  • A discussion of the natural functions of wildfires and their role in the ecosystem;
  • The impact on wildfire occurrence and severity of increased residential and other development in the wildland/urban interface;
  • The implications of all the above information for design of subdivisions in the wildland/urban interface, including issues of access, spacing, landscaping, water supply, building codes and materials, and any special considerations applying to particular types of natural terrain;
  • Planning and regulatory tools that can be applied to wildfire hazard mitigation;
  • A discussion of ways to integrate wildfire hazard mitigation into the local comprehensive plan, with specific local examples from various parts of the country;
  • A bibliography of resources for planners dealing with wildfire hazards;
  • A site plan review checklist for planners reviewing development proposals for the wildland/urban interface;
  • Provisions from local ordinances that the authors and other experts regard as containing best practices.

This project undertook a comprehensive look at how communities can minimize the loss of life and property from wildfires through development regulations, standards for proposal review, special building codes in wildfire hazard areas, and other devices available in the planner's toolbox.

The Products

Planning for WildfiresPAS Report: Planning for Wildfires

The primary product of this 12-month project is the PAS Report Planning for Wildfires (PAS 529/530), covering best practices in subdivision design for wildfire hazard areas, addressing wildfires in comprehensive plan elements, building code enhancements for wildfire overlay districts, evacuation plans and access routes, landscaping and property maintenance issues, and other topics embodied in the research agenda outlined above. The report contains the bibliography produced as a byproduct of the research for this project.

Planning magazine

Researchers Jim Schwab and Stuart Meck also produced a cover story for the November 2004 issue of Planning, "All Fired Up," which summarized much of what they had found and detailed case studies of two communities — Santa Barbara, California, and Okeechobee County, Florida — which had done superior jobs in planning for wildfire mitigation.

American Perspectives on the Wildland/Urban Interface

In addition, at NFPA's request, Jim Schwab contributed a chapter, "Community Planning for Wildfire Protection," to a new book produced by the National Wildland/Urban Interface Fire Program. American Perspectives on the Wildland/Urban Interface is a compilation of more than 20 essays on the problems, concerns, solutions, and recommendations from various disciplines involved in the processes of planning, building, landscaping, protecting, or living in the interface. Foreword by Congressman Mike Simpson, U.S. House of Representatives.