Western Wildfire Protection Lessons for Coastal Development in a Warming Climate

Posted by on February 13, 2013 in Blog, Coastal Development | 0 comments

Coastal Flooding -- Photo by Rebecca Zeiber, N.H. Sea Grant, under creative commons license via flickr

In North Idaho, where I used to work, and throughout the forested Rockies, climate-worsened wildfire is an increasing threat to rural residents. Fires are larger, more frequent and more intense, and costs to  governments, property owners and their insurers are mounting.  Meanwhile, along the coasts, extreme-weather storms with damaging wind and rain and storm surge,are also larger, more frequent and more intense. Similarly, costs to governments, property owners and their insurers are also mounting.

Interestingly, both locations could stand to learn from one another as they face the climate threats.  For example. as coastal communities consider “managed retreat” from the increasingly problematic proximity to rising sea levels, so too should rural communities reconsider isolated development in the fire-dangerous wildland urban interface.

The excellent Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics research organization came up with some good advice to western communities worried about fire that could be just as useful to coastal communities worried about storms. Indeed, according to Headwaters Economics, “Addressing the issue of ever-escalating fire suppression expenses could achieve a number of related public policy goals: increasing fiscal responsibility, introducing a fairer and more equitable distribution of those costs among those benefiting from wildfire protection, and improving the safety of future homeowners and wildland firefighters.” Change “fire suppression” to something like “storm surge mitigation,” change “wildfire protection” to “flood control” and “wildland firefighters” to a more general “first responders” and the similarities are clear.

A Headwaters report (pdf) offers ten ideas for controlling the rising cost of protecting homes from wildland fires. Most are entirely applicable to coastal communities dealing with storm-related flooding:

  1. Mapping: Publish Maps Identifying Areas with High Probability of Wildland Fires.

  2. Education: Increase Awareness of the Financial Consequences of Home Building in Fire-Prone Areas.

  3. Redirecting Federal Aid towards Land Use Planning: Provide Technical Assistance and Financial Incentives to Help Local Governments Direct Future Development Away from the Wildland-Urban Interface.

  4.  Cost Share Agreements: Add Incentives for Counties to Sign Agreements that Share the Costs of Wildland Firefighting between Local and Federal Entities.

  5. Land Acquisition: Purchase Lands or Easements on Lands that are Fire-Prone and at Risk of Conversion to Development.

  6. A National Fire Insurance and Mortgage Program: Apply Lessons from Efforts to Prevent Development in Floodplains.

  7. Insurance: Allow Insurance Companies to Charge Higher Premiums in Fire-Prone Areas.

  8. Zoning: Limit Development in the Wildland-Urban Interface with Local Planning and Zoning Ordinances.

  9. Eliminate Mortgage Interest Deductions:Eliminate Home Interest Mortgage Deductions for New Homes in the Wildland-Urban Interface.

  10. Reduce Federal Firefighting Budgets: Induce Federal Land Managers to Shift More of the Cost of Wildland Firefighting to Local Governments.

Again, by just swapping out a few words and phrases, this could be an impressively robust agenda for coasts.

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