United States: Mitigating the risk of wildfires in the wildland-urban interface
The threat of wildfire is increasing in the United States. In 2015, over 68,000 wildfires in the United States burned more than 4,636 structures and ten million acres—the highest number of acres burned on record. The annual estimates on structure loss due to wildfire have increased dramatically for more than six decades.
Along with temperature, wildfires are determined by a variety of factors, including precipitation. A hotter, drier climate has a major effect on wildfire generation. As stated in the 2014 U.S. National Climate Assessment, increased warming, drought, and insect outbreaks, all caused by or linked to climate change, have increased wildfires, especially in the western U.S. Fire models project more wildfire and increased risks to communities across extensive areas in the future. Given strong relationships between climate and fire, even when modified by land use and management, including fuel treatments, projected climate changes suggest that western forests in the United States will be increasingly affected by large and intense fires that occur more frequently.
Since 1990, 60 percent of new homes nationally have been built in areas known as the wildland-urban interface (WUI), where houses, structures and people reside adjacent to or within wildlands and are therefore at risk of structure loss, injury, and death from wildfire. Federal departments and agencies have an estimated 6,256 buildings in WUI locations.
To better combat these fire risks, we need to increase our understanding of how wildfires interact with communities in terms of structures, terrain, and weather. Together, we must take action to enhance community resilience against these risks.
Today, the White House, in collaboration with the Departments of Interior, Agriculture, and Homeland Security, is hosting a roundtable to discuss wildfire mitigation and firefighter safety, and to identify further policy actions needed to enhance community resilience within the WUI. Senior Federal agency officials; State, local, and tribal government leaders; and representatives of national organizations dedicated to firefighter safety and to community resilience will participate. At the roundtable, the following announcements will be made:
Executive Order for Enhanced Wildfire Risk Mitigation in the Wildland-Urban Interface
President Obama today signed an Executive Order on Wildland-Urban Interface Federal Risk Mitigation, which will mitigate wildfire risks to Federal buildings located in the WUI, reduce risks to people, and help minimize property loss to wildfire. For new buildings and alterations to existing buildings greater than 5,000 square feet on Federal land within the WUI at moderate or greater risk to wildfire, the Executive Order directs Federal agencies to apply wildfire-resistant design provisions delineated in the 2015 edition of the International Wildland-Urban Interface Code (IWUIC) promulgated by the International Code Council (ICC), or an equivalent code. These codes, which encompass the current understanding of wildfire hazard potential, will help increase safety and protect the lives of people who live or work in these buildings.
Federal, State, local, tribal and non-Government leaders from over 39 agencies and jurisdictions have committed to a multi-scale, collaborative approach to address the challenges posed by wildfire in wildland-urban interface and to the following statement:
As Federal, State, local, tribal and non-Government leaders, we recognize the challenges of managing fire in the wildland-urban interface, including the increased complexity of fire response, air quality and public health impacts, and loss of community infrastructure and cultural resources. The consequences of a changing climate intensify these challenges, resulting in more severe wildfires threatening the well-being of our communities, and jeopardizing the safety of our first responders and the public they serve.
We are committed to safely and effectively extinguishing fire, when needed; using fire where allowable; managing our natural resources; and as a Nation, living with wildland fire safely. We are committed to advancing community resilience in the wildland-urban interface, managing the adjacent landscapes wisely, and continuing to improve the efficiency of wildland fire response. We are committed to a multi-scale, collaborative approach to address the challenges posed by wildfire in the wildland-urban interface.
Building Resilience and Sustainability
The effort to mitigate wildfire risk to Federal facilities is part of a broader set of initiatives to build resilience throughout the Federal government, with State, local, and tribal leaders, and with non-governmental partners. Recent Federal resilience initiatives have focused on flood risk management, seismic early warning, long-term drought resilience, advocating for climate-smart building codes and standards, and a number of technical assistance programs to partner with communities to enhance sustainability and resilience. Together with Federal sustainability initiatives to promote clean energy and lower greenhouse gas emissions across the Federal family, these actions help prepare us for those climate impacts that are too late to avoid.