Guest Opinions

Four steps to improve local wildfire planning

This summer’s Table Rock fire was photographed from the Harris Ranch side, and is a reminder of how quickly wildfires can take hold near residential areas.
This summer’s Table Rock fire was photographed from the Harris Ranch side, and is a reminder of how quickly wildfires can take hold near residential areas. Lee Dillon

The price of wildfire has never been higher. In 1995, fire made up 16 percent of the U.S. Forest Service’s annual appropriation budget; in 2015, wildfire consumed more than 50 percent of the agency’s budget. But the price of fire is also told in lost recreational opportunities, scarred landscapes adjacent to city centers, loss of wildlife habitat, presence of invasive species and, increasingly, after-effects such as flood and landslides, that can cause even greater long-term harm to a community than the initial fire.

What can Idaho communities do to respond? A new guide from researchers at the University of Idaho and Boise State University provides some answers. “Planning for Wildfire at the Wildland-Urban Interface: A Resource Guide for Idaho Communities,” is a 167-page free guide (tinyurl.com/gr8rfr3) that features a four-step approach to wildfire planning, the results of a large wildfire risk perception survey of Idahoans, and over 30 code examples of best practices from throughout the West. The guide focuses particularly on “wildland-urban interface” fires, such as those on Table Rock in Boise. This emphasis is warranted because those fires are among the most expensive fires and development in the interface is rapid.

As a first step, communities should draft an inter-jurisdictional community wildfire protection plans at county, city and neighborhood levels, where risk is high. Protection plans allow local communities to sit down with federal and state land managers and make a plan for how public lands adjacent to Idaho communities should be managed.

Second, communities should create a package of regulation and incentives while also seeking co-benefits, such as open space or wildlife corridors, that resonate with the local community. Communities across the West that have planned across scales — from the community to the neighborhood, site, and building scales — have seen especially rewarding results.

Third, effective implementation recognizes the need for ongoing maintenance in effective wildfire management. This can include programs like those in Kootenai County that clean up wildland fuels on private land, so long as the owner signs a maintenance agreement. It also means departments in a government — fire, building, planning — and nongovernmental entities, must strive to work together and communicate effectively about shared wildfire planning goals, a very hard thing to do.

Fourth, the guide recommends a return to and amendment of plans, codes and incentives after a wildfire event — when the community is most interested in the subject — or after a passage of a period of time. For instance, Idaho is presently pioneering a process of integrating wildlife protection plans into its All Hazard Mitigation Plans, an important process that will reduce redundant planning, will provide Idaho communities access to FEMA funds, but also require that protection plans be updated every five years.

Effective planning for wildfire is still in its infancy. With coordination and an ongoing planning process, Idaho can lead the way in growing while keeping its citizens safe from wildfire.

Stephen R. Miller is associate professor of law at the University of Idaho College of Law and lead author of the guide.

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