Thursday, September 07, 2017

Building more fire-resilient communities

A controlled burn outside Bend, Oregon. (Route Fifty photo by Michael Grass)
As one of the worst wildfire seasons in recorded history burns through the Western United States, a story from Michael Grass of Route Fifty examines how emergency responders, public officials and other stakeholders can help ensure safety for towns built on the edge of rural areas prone to wildfire. Forest managers call such areas the "wildland-urban interface."

Bend, Oregon, is one such town. U.S. Forest Service personnel employ regular controlled burns in the nearby forests to clear out dry undergrowth that could cause uncontrollable wildfires. Regular burns keep the trees healthy too, and provide a habitat for some species.

"We’re looking at developing our communities in a very different way than we did 10 years ago, or even five years ago," said Romy Mortensen, the vice president of sales and marketing of Brooks Resources, a development company with long roots in Bend and central Oregon.

But development can be a contentious topic in Bend, a town of 90,000. "Forest management—and by extension, the emergency managers who have to deal with wildfires—sits uncomfortably at the intersection of policy discussions involving environmental conservation, land use and property rights," Grass reports. For instance, smart development in wildfire-prone areas includes leaving a buffer of undeveloped space between homes and flammable acreage. But county officials who gathered to hear from Mortensen were concerned about their property rights being violated.

The answer to such concerns is complicated. "Land-use planning rules, depending on which state or locality you’re in, can vary considerably across the West. In Oregon, the situation is more regulated, meaning that private property rights fall under the context of the state’s larger land-use plan," Grass reports. So developers and local planners must work with each other to find a middle path where property rights are respected while safety parameters are observed. But even following strict safety protocols is no guarantee of safety. "The only true way to prevent wildfires from destroying homes and threatening communities is not build in vulnerable forests in the first place. But that’s a tough sell for local officials across the West," Grass writes.

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