New Urban Land Institute Report Explores Best Practices for Wildfire Resilience
WASHINGTON – A new report from the Urban Land Institute (ULI) highlights the devastating impact of wildfires on communities and how the real estate industry can best prepare for and respond to them. ULI is a global, multidisciplinary real estate organization whose work is driven by more than 45,000 members dedicated to providing leadership in the responsible use of land and in creating and sustaining thriving communities worldwide.
The report, Firebreak: Wildfire Resilience Strategies for Real Estate, published with support from the Kresge Foundation, has been released during the United States’ worst wildfire season on record. In California alone, four million acres have burned in 2020, more than double the previous record for any year. The August Complex fire itself has burned over a million acres in the state. Oregon and Washington are also among the states experiencing unprecedented wildfire seasons, a symptom of worsening climate change, as is Colorado, where multiple fires have ignited within just 15 miles of Boulder. Firebreak shows real estate developers, urban planners, and public leaders are increasingly aware of how land use practicescan exacerbate wildfires, their concern about the consequences of wildfires, and how they are implementing asset and community scale resilience efforts.
“As we’ve seen in the west, the devastating impact of wildfires is continuing to increase year after year, and the real estate industry needs to be prepared to adapt to this new normal,” said ULI chief executive officer W. Edward Walter. “This new report, published in conjunction with our friends at the Kresge Foundation, lays out in clear detail how the industry can prepare for the future while showcasing projects and policies that have successfully incorporated wildfire resilience to reduce risk to communities.”
Among the key takeaways in the report:
- Wildfires are a national risk: Wildfires are becoming increasingly frequent, large, unpredictable, and destructive due to climate change; development patterns and large-scale forestry management approaches have been an additional factor. While wildfire property risks are concentrated in the western U.S., wildfires can occur in every state. Moreover, unhealthy air quality from wildfire smoke and the increasing costs of firefighting are challenges in many communities across the U.S.
- Community and market disruption: Repeated evacuations, building loss, employment interruption, and the day-to-day stress of living with poor air quality, without electricity, or under threat of wildfire can harm individuals and disrupt entire communities. Low-income communities are often most vulnerable, given the burden of emergency and recovery expenses as well as the likelihood that lower value homes do not incorporate resilient technologies. As longer and more intense fire seasons become the new normal, repetitive losses, insurance shifts, and population displacement could also lead to long-term changes in regional economies and real estate markets.
- Wildfires affect housing affordability: Demand for suburban living and the high costs of urban housing contribute to new development in highrisk wildfire areas. Furthermore, wildfires reduce the already short supply of housing and exacerbate affordability and access problems in rural and urban areas.
- The real estate industry is implementing effective solutions: The real estate industry is increasingly aware that infrastructure and people in highrisk areas are almost certain to be threatened by wildfire and is focused on preparing for that eventuality. Best-practice resilient construction, development, land, and infrastructure management can significantly decrease the negative outcomes of wildfire events, setting communities up to more quickly recover from wildfire events and to thrive in the long run.
The report points to a broad range of options to mitigate wildfire damages and increase community health and safety, including structure hardening, defensible space and vegetation management, strategic density in lower-risk areas, hazard-informed comprehensive and regional planning, and tenant and community engagement.
Firebreak also profiles developments, policies, and programs that have successfully incorporated wildfire resilience strategies, including:
- Avimor in Boise, Idaho, a 35square-mile development where ignition-resistant building materials as well as conservation and rigorous management of nearby open spaces have helped attract homeowners and commercial tenants while limiting damages from two wildfire events.
- Rancho Mission Viejo in Southern California, the largest new community in California; fire hazard and behavior assessments, defensible space protocols, and higher density in lower risk areas are central components of its wildfire resilient site layout, building design, and marketing.
- Pepperwood Preserve in Northern California a 3,200-acre field station impacted by wildfires in 2017 and 2019 where rebuilt structures are designed to be fire-resilient and non-toxic.
- Austin’s Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) Code, a new WUI code with bestpractice ignition-resistant standards for both new and remodeled structures, including building design requirements for ember protection and structure hardening.
- Paradise, California’s Recovery Plan, which employs a longterm strategy incorporating many best practices in wildfire resilience, documents the priorities and recommendations widely supported by residents, and may serve as a template for other wildfire-affected communities.
- Prescott, Arizona’s WUI Commission, a uniquely structured nonprofit that, with strong county and city support, is leading vegetation management and equitable funding programs to enhance wildfire resilience in Arizona.
“Once the worst of the 2020 fire season is behind us, it’s time to take a long, hard look at how we can make our communities safer from, and more resilient to, future wildfires,” says Molly McCabe, president at Hayden Tanner and ULI member reviewer of the new report. “In addition to preparing their own developments, the real estate industry can partner with communities to make planning and development decisions—before the fires start—to give communities the best chance to thrive.”
The funding provided by the Kresge Foundation for Wildfire Resilience was contributed as part of a grant to the ULI Foundation, which provides philanthropic support for ULI initiatives to create and sustain thriving communities worldwide.
The report, Firebreak: Wildfire Resilience Strategies for Real Estate, is available to download on ULI’s Knowledge Finder platform.