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How Better Building Codes Can Mitigate Wildfires’ Devastation

More structures are at risk than ever before, and there's a lot that could be done to protect them and improve community resilience. The benefits far outweigh the costs.

Firefighters work through the night to save structures at Breitenbush Hot Springs in Oregon. (Courtesy photos Breitenbush Hot Springs/TNS)
As climate change brings warmer temperatures and dryer winters, the consequences of wildfires are not only more devastating, but the fire season is now months longer across much of the West. California officials recently reported surpassing four million acres burned this year, more than double the state's previous record set in 2018.

At the same time, people are increasingly finding themselves within or moving to "wildland urban interface" zones. WUIs are defined by the U.S. Fire Administration as areas where human-made structures and infrastructure are in or adjacent to areas prone to wildfires. While wildfires are viewed as primarily a western problem, WUIs exist in every state. According to an analysis of U.S. Forest Service data, the area encompassed by WUIs has steadily increased and now affects one-third of all homes in the United States.

Building and fire departments have a responsibility to their communities to ensure that new and existing structures in a WUI are protected against wildfires. One of the best ways to accomplish this is through adoption and enforcement of rigorous building codes and standards, including the International Code Council's International Wildland Urban Interface Code (IWUIC).

The IWUIC focuses on the use of ignition-resistant building materials, screens to prevent embers from penetrating into eaves and under foundations, creating and maintaining defensible space, and fire-service access to structures and water supplies. However, even though aspects of the IWUIC are used by some communities in 20 states, codes to mitigate wildfire risk more comprehensively are severely underutilized. Officials at the state, local and federal levels have instead focused primarily on forestry management, fire suppression and zoning.

Wildfire construction and property maintenance standards should be a co-equal consideration. While communities can reduce the frequency and severity of wildfires through forest management and fire suppression activities, if rigorous wildland fire codes and standards are not adopted and enforced by communities already within the WUI — as well as those being subsumed by it due to climate change or improved hazard mapping — lives and property remain at greater risk.

The National Institute of Building Sciences recently found that adopting the 2015 edition of the IWUIC in 10,000 census blocks across the country would generate $4 in wildfire mitigation savings for every $1 invested — benefits that represent avoided casualties, property damage, business interruptions, and insurance costs and are enjoyed by all building stakeholders including developers, title-holders, lenders, tenants and communities. And according to the institute, retrofitting 2.5 million homes to the 2018 IWUIC could provide a nationwide benefit-cost ratio as high as $8 to $1.

Numbers like those make a clear case for state and local governments, particularly in the western and southwestern U.S., to leverage the IWUIC, and it's encouraging to see moves in that direction. In Oregon, for example, Gov. Kate Brown's Council on Wildfire Response recommended statewide IWUIC adoption, and implementing legislation has been introduced.

States where code adoption is managed locally or regionally could look to the successful adoption of the IWUIC earlier this year by Austin, Texas, where nearly 74,000 homes worth nearly $23 billion are at risk. The benefits would be comparable for cities like San Antonio, with more than 41,000 at-risk homes valued at nearly $12 billion, and Denver, where nearly 56,000 homes worth nearly $18 billion face wildfire risk.

The federal government has an equally important role to play. Its National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy stresses the importance of WUI fire codes, and the House recently passed legislation that would provide $2.5 billion toward retrofitting homes to meet or exceed the 2018 IWUIC's requirements. Although retrofits are critical, without adopting WUI fire and building codes, new construction in WUI communities will continue to lack wildfire-resistant measures. That's why FEMA, with Congress' support, should establish a dedicated program to support code adoption and implementation.

No matter where the impetus for change comes from, the adoption and implementation of WUI building and fire codes are a critical part of effective wildfire mitigation and community resilience. It's an all-hands challenge, and meeting it requires leadership at all levels of government and grassroots efforts at the community level to build the needed momentum.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

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