Improved fire codes may not be enough to protect homes in fire-prone areas
A wildfire destroyed scores of homes in Kittitas County, Washington, and blazes roared through Colorado Springs and other communities in the parched West this year. These fires struck in areas where development is occurring near forested areas that can become tinder boxes in severe droughts.
Ray Rasker, executive director of Bozeman, Mont.-based Headwaters Economics, says these events require a national conversation about home-building in fire-prone areas, but most people "are completely distracted" by the effort to make rural homes more fire-resistant.
Washington’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Kittitas County, and the Kittitas Conservation District haven't endorsed his suggestion to discourage construction in fire-prone areas. Instead, they have been helping homeowners meet the Firewise Communities guidelines promoted by the National Fire Protection Association, U.S. Forest Service, Department of the Interior, and National Association of State Foresters. Those guidelines were used as a model for Kittitas County's 2006 building code that requires use of nonflammable materials in the roofs and siding of new homes built in fire-prone areas, as well as creation of a "defensible space" where trees and other potentially dry plants are kept away from houses.
Across the West, there are homes on 14% of the wildland-urban interface, Rasker says. The federal government spends $3 billion a year protecting homes from wildfires, twice as much as it spent 10 years ago, Rasker said, and he predicts the cost will double again within 15 years.
“What do we want the future to look like and how do we prevent these firefighting costs from going up?" Rasker asks.