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Municipalities Matter: Wildfires Are a Community Design Problem

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Municipalities Matter

Wildfires Are a Community Design Problem

This is a guest post by Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers and Yucel Ors of the National League of Cities (NLC); this first appeared in CITIES Speak blog series by NLC

Wildfire Outside Colorado SpringsEvery mayor or city manager has read an article or watched a news clip focused on a community ravaged by wildfire. Many have even witnessed firsthand the economic, environmental, and social implications that wildland-urban interface fires can create in unprepared communities. Every year, these images grow more widespread and familiar. 

For American communities, wildfire should no longer be considered an exception — it is a fact of life. 

Nor should government officials mistakenly assume that wildfire happens only to other communities and not theirs. We should approach the threat of wildfire as a "when" concern, not a "what-if". 

When wildfire enters a community, its path of destruction is fueled by overgrown, diseased, and drought-stricken vegetation. It destroys animal habitats, affects air quality, and quality of life. When wildfire encounters what is called a wildland-urban interface — such as the wooded edge of a populous suburb — it can alter course, burning through homes, businesses, and infrastructure.  

Each of these impacts comes with a price tag, which can quickly add up to tens of millions of dollars. But even more important than structures and money, wildfire may cost the lives of citizens, visitors, and firefighters/first responders. 

The most dangerous kinds of wildfires, which attack communities adjacent to and surrounded by wildlands, are not unique to the West or specific to the Rocky Mountains, as is commonly thought. Most recently, fires in the southeast have become frequent and severe — a glaring proof of threat for every city in the nation. For this reason alone, it is essential that leaders of communities containing wildland-urban interface zones take immediate action.  

Moreover, wildfire damages more than just what lies in its path: the aftermath of a burn is capable of contaminating or incapacitating watersheds. The deposition of ash, soot, and debris in reservoirs, streams, and water supplies for remote communities can prove catastrophic.  

Contaminated water means a temporary or even long-term loss of water supply — which can cripple a community economically. The significant expense of cleaning and rehabilitating, as well as any related lawsuits, is funded primarily by taxpayer dollars. 

Worse, deforestation from so-called "crown fires" can sterilize the ground — leaving soils unable to collect and retain rainwater. This can increase the severity of flash floods and landslides for years. Mitigate or deflecting the damage is costly, and it requires committing both resources and personnel over extended periods of time. Over time, this issue can also cause subsidence issues with existing infrastructure, bridges, and buildings.  

Simply put, fires that reach the wildland-urban interface are bad news. But when a community is prepared, the worst impacts can be avoided. Preparedness and planning are key to mitigating the damage — and community leaders should develop strategies to address the challenges these events impose. 

City leaders can prepare by following simple steps like these: 

  1. Planning and practicing evacuating, as recommended by the Ready, Set, Go! Program
  2. Discussing and planning with local fire and law enforcement officials. 
  3. Examining risks and developing strategies to lower risks. 
  4. Engaging and leading the community in Firewise® strategies, as already described through FireAdapted Communities
  5. Recognizing that fire is part of our natural environment. It is a method utilized by nature to clean and control forest and range lands. Fire is an essential component for the rejuvenation of forests, grasslands, and prairies. As such, similar to how the nation prepares for other natural forces and events, we must respect wildland fire’s power and learn to adapt.  

Strategic wildfire planning does not have to mean clear-cutting or obliterating forested land. It does not necessarily involve unsightly or cost-prohibitive building regulations But it does mean developing awareness and exposing risks, as well as identifying what outcomes are achievable through recognition, preparation, and dialog. 

Properly preparing community leaders for their roles in wildfire planning and development is an essential goal to National League of Cities. There are many resources available to assist.  

About the authors: John Suthers was elected the 41st mayor of Colorado Springs on May 19, 2015. Suthers brings decades of experience in government and management to the City of Colorado Springs. Before being elected mayor, Suthers served as attorney general of Colorado from 2005 to 2015.