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Teri Shore

Book Review: Managing Fire in the Urban Wildland Interface

I wish I’d had this book in hand in the aftermath of the 2017 wildfires in Sonoma County. At that point, like many of us outside the firefighting profession, I had never even heard the term “WUI” (Wildland Urban Interface) until a reporter asked me about it. Since then, I’ve faced a steep learning curve while coming to grips with what happened, the wildfires, and the areas known as the WUI. Finally, I have a primer that puts it all together: Managing Fire in the Urban Wildland Interface, published by Solano Press Books out of Pt. Arena in 2010. 

While some things have certainly changed since the text was published 10 years ago—such as the use of the term WUI instead of UWI (Urban Wildland Interface)—the basics of wildfire threats, challenges, and range of solutions in the WUI compiled here are more relevant than ever. In some ways, the book was a warning of what was to come as it was written before the precedent-setting wildfires across California over the past five years.

The authors examine land use, planning, laws, and the critical role of the public process as pathways to reducing the loss and life of home to wildfires in the WUI. The book is targeted to planners, developers, property owners, and fire authorities. Yet as an environmental and land-use policy advocate, I found it very useful as it provides in a single volume, critical baseline information about wildfires on the urban edge along with an  analysis ofs policy approaches and challenges to making change at the government and community level to increase wildfire resiliency. And that doing so is clearly not easy.

The authors are experts in the wildfire world: Kenneth Blonski, Fire Chief (retired), East Bay Regional Park District; Cheryl Miller, Wildfire Prevention and Landscape Architect, Oakland; and Carol L. Rice, Natural Resource Manager and Fire Ecologist. They wrote the book in large part due to the increasing wildfire risk and losses dating back to the 1991 Tunnel Fire in the Oakland Hills and the continued expansion of development in the WUI across the state with little significant change to land-use policy regarding wildfire.

“In spite of our expanding skills and capability in wildfire suppression, the loss from UWI fire continues to grow,” the authors state early on in the book. “Planning for development needs to include fire as an integral issue.”

What Hasn’t Changed

The book begins by laying a foundation describing and defining wildfire terms and behavior in clear and concise terms, such as the components of heat that comprise a wildfire: convection heat (flames), radiant heat (super-heated air that triggers combustion), and firebrands (embers that fly far ahead of the flames). It explains how wildfires burn across the landscape at various intensities and how urban and wildland firefighting differ. For me, it puts all the things I’ve picked up here and there over the years into one place. Having learned a lot along the way, perhaps it makes more sense to me now than it would have five years ago.

The authors titled one key section “Ghosts at the Table” to describe their review of federal and state laws that shaped the way we manage and fund wildfire. This section touches on key federal legislation such as the federal Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000 that first required Hazard Mitigation Plans and wildfire threat assessment and mitigation. Federal legislation that followed remains controversial among environmentalists, including the Healthy Forest Restoration Act and the Healthy Forest Initiative that focused on public forest management and logging. The battles are not new and continue today over how much logging and removal of trees help reduce wildfires or is sound for ecosystems. The timeline and review of these federal bills, as well as key California legislation dating to the 1991 fire-safe regulations, helps us understand how we got where we are today. However, it does not include the more recent state or federal legislation.

In one of the more fascinating sections, the text delves into the nitty gritty of achieving stronger land-use policies and the highly politicized public process that usually ensues. The authors don’t hesitate to name the special interests involved and their agendas in the chapters titled “The Players-Who Should Be Involved” and “Existing Industries and Vested Interests.” The list includes the insurance industry, fire protection districts, developers, planners, builders, real estate, forest products, utilities, and government agencies.

The Best Practices and Solutions section provides a range of policy options in a spreadsheet for adoption into General Plans, and associated Housing, Land Use, and Safety Elements. Natural solutions like greenbelts are recommended for high hazard areas. For housing, they suggest adopting stronger development standards for new construction in high wildfire risk areas. Many of the policies are general, emphasizing the need for specific measures relevant to the conditions in a given community or jurisdiction. 

A number of other issues are addressed in the book including evacuation, fire-safe roads, community design such as clustering homes, funding for wildfire mitigation, and biomass energy.

What Has Changed

While I found the book to be quite valuable in wildfire research I’m completing on several fronts, it would be great if it was updated. A number of things have changed, such as the use of the term WUI instead of UWI, as the book uses throughout. 

Defensible space and home construction is discussed at length, though it seems that the thinking has changed over the past 10 years. Here, the authors call for defensible space from 30 to 100 feet from the home. While that is still a somewhat relevant standard, recent research indicates that it is the first five feet (or so) around the home that is the critical point of ignition, primarily from embers.

The book does call out several case studies that were relevant 10 years ago, but they are clearly outdated. For example, the town of Paradise that burned down in 2018 is cited as a model for wildfire preparation. The City and County of Napa’s Firewise Plan from 2010 is also cited as a new concept that would be implemented in 10 years. It appears that the City and County have done just that with its Napa Firewise Program. One of the Fire Councils is now offering three-hour wildfire-risk assessments for homeowners funded through various grants. Whether this primer on all things WUI gets updated or not, Managing Fire in the Urban Wildland Interface is a foundational textbook on wildfire and the WUI and would be a useful reference for advocates, planners, and the community at large. While I wished I’d found it sooner, I’m glad we have it now to reference as Greenbelt Alliance continues to forward our wildfire and climate resiliency policy work.

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