Poor land management is fuelling dangerous wildfires

Published by Flemmich Webb on

By Lauren Hubbard

Firefighters have reached full containment on the Mendocino Complex Fire, the largest recorded wildfire in California history, which burnt for more than a month at a time when in most years fire season has only recently begun.

The blistering temperatures of yet another abnormally dry summer, combined with the effects of devastation left by historic droughts between 201 and 2017, were to blame for fuelling the fire and sparking dozens of similar wildfires throughout the western hemisphere.

This is not a one-off – the number of wildfires globally is increasing. Since 1979, the duration of the fire season has increased by 20% worldwide and weekly bushfire frequencies in Australia have increased by 40 per cent between 2008 to 2013. As the risk of wildfires has increased, so has the number of people and expensive infrastructure potentially affected. Today, 55% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, a proportion that is expected to increase to 68% by 2050 according to the UN.

There are many causes of wildfires – both natural and manmade. Natural factors include drought and heatwave, whilst manmade causes include urban sprawl, the flammability of building materials and depopulation from rural areas which increases the risk of fire not being contained and the amount of natural flammable materials not being controlled. But perhaps one of the largest contributors to fires’ devastating impacts is poor urban planning.

Population growth is driving new urban development beyond existing metropolitan areas into more marginal lands where neighbourhoods are pushed up against heavily forested hillsides or vast grasslands that are more prone to catch fire. These areas, known as ‘wildland-urban interfaces’, are of greatest concern to fire safety officials. The amount of land where these interfaces exist is growing fast – the US has seen a 41% increase in wildland-urban interface land use between 1990 to 2010, for example. Wildfires in wildland-urban interface areas cause high economic losses because they destroy private and public assets and critical infrastructure, as well as damage human health from increased pollution.

But while planning is part of the problem, it is also part of the solution.

Well thought out, appropriate planning can play an essential role in reducing fire risk in urban areas, according to Danielle Antonellis, a fire engineer at engineering consultancy Arup. “Land use planning and building practices that consider fire risks posed by adjacent areas – high-risk buildings next to land prone to wildfires, for example – in order to minimise fire spread, can limit the consequences of single fire events,” she says.

To do this planners need data on wildland-urban interface areas, which can help them to proactively manage urban development by prioritising fire risk control and fire management strategies. Researchers at the University of Leicester are creating a map of all wildland-urban interface areas in Europe to establish where the greatest risk of fires are.

Planners are also adopting a risk-based planning approach. This might involve imposing restrictions on development near forested areas, such as the use of agreements with property owners on building materials to mitigate the threat of fires.  Zoning – which could mean regulating building in areas with high wildfire risk, for example – could also help mitigate wildfire risk.

Appropriately located fire stations, reliable communication networks, accessible transport infrastructure, and reliable water infrastructure for effective fire response are other planning considerations, says Antonellis from Arup, who also cites appropriate regulations and regulatory frameworks for the design, construction, and management of buildings and infrastructure, as key to improving fire resilience.

The insurance sector could also contribute by offering price reductions on insurance policies for buildings that are built in fire-resilient areas and with good fire control systems, such as sprinklers.

One important lesson learnt from the Fort McMurray fire of 2016 which devastated Alta, Canada was the value of good urban planning. The rapid urbanisation in the area had meant buildings were of poor quality with few fire safety measures – and as a consequence the fire spread swiftly throughout the town, causing widespread damage. Since then officials have had the chance to think about how to rebuild the city so it is more resilient to fire. One plan is to build more access roads in various parts of the town to allow people to escape more easily and a ring road to prevent heavy vehicles clogging the town centre – when the fire struck people struggled to flee on roads that quickly became congested.

As the frequency of wildfires increases, city planners must respond to the multitude of changes in their landscapes, driven by urbanisation, by proactively managing how cities develop and grow. This will help to address some of the factors that exacerbate the risk of fires to communities and businesses around the world.