To avoid future catastrophes like the California fires, we must learn to build smarter

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By Marccus D. Hendricks and William Mobley

The recent Camp fire in California has been declared the deadliest in the state’s history. The devastation is yet another example of the collision of climate-related risks and the human-built environment. Climate change isn’t the singular cause of the Camp, Hill and Woosley fires; however, it has amplified environmental factors (including warmer and dried-out soils) in creating a longer fire season that sets the stage for increased risk. Growth and development have met these environmental factors at what experts call the “wildland-urban interface.”


Urban and regional planners can help communities achieve smart growth in smarter places. More specifically, planners focused on hazard mitigation can help communities think about growth and development in the context of hazard risks and the vulnerabilities associated with those risks. Planners can also support communities in developing a hazard mitigation plan that includes long-term strategies for protecting people and property from future hazard events.

Research has shown federal policies make little difference in community land-use actions. State policy, on the other hand, exerts a strong influence. Therefore, mitigation and adaptation strategies have to be locally grounded and locally governed. Zoning plays a role in planning as well and most often is carried out at the local municipal level; it regulates the type, location, bulk and density of development and continues to be based on the Standard State Zoning Enabling Act of 1924.

The concept of adaptation ― modifying building practices in consideration of climate change and changing environmental conditions ― has grown in popularity over the last two decades. And a community’s wildfire adaptation often sits at the household level. Take California’s WUI building codes, for example. Specifically, the law requires that homeowners reduce vegetation 100 feet (or the property line) around their buildings to create a defensible space for firefighters and to protect their homes from wildfires. Building codes, which include ignition-resistant standards, are thought to protect buildings from being ignited by flying embers.


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Hazards Wildfire
Country and region United States of America
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