Along with their devastating physical and psychological toll, the price tag for fighting wildfires keeps increasing. According to Headwater Economics, since 2002, the cost of federal wildfire protection and suppression has tripled to more than $3 billion per year. A separate federal report found that 44 million U.S. homes are in the "wildland-urban interface" or the vulnerable place where development intersects with fire-prone wilderness areas. As growth continues to expand past the edge of town in so many places, there is a strong proactive push to safeguard lives and property. The Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire (CPAW) Program is one resource to help municipal officials reduce the risk of wildfire hazards from the start through improved land use planning.
Hotter, drier conditions may exacerbate wildfires. The number of acres burned has increased from 4.5 million in 1960 to 10.2 in 2015, and the fire season has increased by 78 days since the 1970s. However, wildfires have always been part of the natural cycle in many parts of the country. Fire ecology is the science that explains why they are a perennial occurrence. As dangerous and disruptive as they are to people, they are also an integral part of many ecosystems. Some species actually depend on them for survival. Their aftereffects may include:
- Less debris and more sunlight reaching the forest floor
- Increased fertilizer in the soil
- Less competition for nutrients and water for native plants
- The reduction of invasive species
- The reduction of diseases and predators
- Increased germination in fire dependent species. Some plants like chaparral must have fire to germinate or they will not reproduce.
Creating Fire-Adapted Communities
Given that wildfires are inevitable, planning is critical in helping communities minimize their risks. CPAW, a relatively new program established in 2015 by Headwaters Economic and Wildfire Planning International, strives to create fire-adapted communities that accept wildfires as part of the landscape while avoiding loss of life and property. Their four areas of focus include:
- Land use planning: ensuring land use planning priorities include wildfires.
- Risk assessment: developing wildfire risk maps to identify which locations have a high risk to inform decision making as to where safe development can occur. These maps also benefit existing property owners by pointing out who has the greatest need for mitigation and risk reduction.
- Capacity building: providing conferences and workshops throughout the year so communities can increase their knowledge of fire behavior, landscape regulations, and fire risk modeling. They also encourage communities to share best practices and learning experiences with each other.
- Research and development: contributing to the scientific body of literature on wildfire planning in wildland urban interfaces.
Applying for the Community Planning and Assistance for Wildfire Program
Eligible applicants include tribal organizations/institutions and local governments. Assistance is in the form of free customized technical consulting services and training over the course of one year. Applicants should have the participation of both their fire and planning departments. Assistance is voluntary and recipients retain sole authority over implementation of recommendations. Applications are due by September 29, 2017.
More About CPAW
To learn more about CPAW's framework, process, and outcomes in creating fire-adapted communities view their slide show.