This article is part of a series form Future Tense and New America’s Future of Land and Housing Program on reimagining how America will adapt to climate change and sea level rise. On June 16 at 12 p.m. Eastern, join us online for an event titled “What Is Coastal America’s Future?”; register here.
In 2018, downed powerlines ignited northern California’s Camp Fire, which raced through Butte County into the town of Paradise, spreading at a rate of up to 80 football fields per minute. The fire took 85 lives and destroyed nearly 19,000 structures, becoming the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history. Just two years later, in 2020, the state experienced its largest wildfire, the August Complex, which burned more than 1 million acres of land across six different counties. That same summer, the Almeda Fire took hold in Oregon, where its catastrophic toll included the loss of more than 2,600 homes and three lives.
These days, wildfire records don’t last very long—and there are no signs of record-breaking trends letting up. On Dec. 30, 2021, the Marshall Fire ignited in Boulder County, Colorado. This winter wildfire was fanned by 100-mile-per-hour winds and parched grasses, burning more than 1,000 homes and several businesses in suburban communities and killing two people within 12 hours. Already this year, major fires have burned in Florida, Texas, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, where the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire has become the largest wildfire in state history, and the early spring McBride Fire destroyed 200 homes and killed two people.
But wildfires don’t just destroy homes, infrastructure, and lives—their widespread secondary impacts also disrupt daily norms and pose additional health and safety risks. In several Western states, wildfires have forced utility companies to develop strategies for “public safety power shutoffs,” which pre-emptively turn off electricity during dangerous weather conditions in high wildfire hazard areas. Evacuation notices are now so common in some communities that residents are advised to pack emergency go bags and be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. During long stretches of the summer and fall, an almost continuous haze of wildfire-generated smoke in the atmosphere is regularly creating hazardous air quality levels that extend far beyond fire locations—during last summer’s fires, wildfire smoke from Canada and the Western U.S. created unhealthy air quality as far away as New York and Pennsylvania. Wildfires and poor visibility also shut down commerce routes such as major highways and railways—during the 2020 Grizzly Creek Fire in Colorado, Interstate 70 was forced to close for two full weeks, disrupting supply chains across multiple states. Forest closures, smoke, or mass displacements from wildfires frequently cancel summer vacations, camping trips, weddings, and other events, with drastic impacts for tourism and hospitality industries.
Seasoned incident managers say they have never witnessed fires this intense and severe. Several factors are to blame, and all of them have to do with us. Starting in the early 1900s, fire agencies formalized a policy to suppress all wildfires in an attempt to protect towns and large timber stands. But a full suppression policy, we now recognize, is unachievable and inappropriate, primarily because it results in unhealthy forests and ecosystems, which ultimately contribute to increased fire risk.
At the same time, we built homes and businesses in a variety of fire-prone landscapes—forests, prairies, grasslands, and other areas now known as the wildland-urban interface (commonly referred to as the “WUI”). The U.S. Forest Service and SILVIS Lab estimate that between 1990 and 2010 the number of houses located in the WUI grew to 43.4 million from 30.8 million. Many Western counties experienced the highest growth, with some areas seeing more than a 75 percent growth rate of homes being added to the WUI. Much of this development did not incorporate adequate fire measures, such as emergency access routes for evacuation, adequate water supply for response, or building materials that could withstand an onslaught of intense heat and embers.
Layered on top of our past development and land management decisions is the dramatically changing climate. The Western U.S. is experiencing its worst megadrought in at least 1,200 years, evidenced by declining snowpack, record low reservoirs, and parched agriculture fields. There is no reason to believe things will get better: The United Nations Environment Programme predicts that climate change conditions will continue to exacerbate droughts, extreme heat, variability in precipitation, and declining ecosystem health. Without radical transformation, the future of living in wildfire-prone areas looks increasingly hot, smoky, and terrifying.
Our wildfire crisis requires us to reimagine the way we build and live in fire-prone areas to adapt our communities and landscapes to future climate conditions. This future must prioritize equitable outcomes so that resilience works for everyone.
We can start by ensuring that every home is built and landscaped to incorporate a science-based approach to wildfire risk reduction—for example, designing structures with construction materials that resist embers and flames. Roof coverings should be “Class A” materials, such as concrete or clay roof tiles, asphalt shingles, and metal roofs, which offer the highest resistance to fire. Other required features include multipaned or tempered glass windows that provide additional protection from potential heat sources, attic vents with mesh screens that prevent embers from entering the house, noncombustible siding and gutters that won’t melt or burn, and fire-rated decking materials that resist ignition.
Natural resource managers and fire protection agencies also emphasize the need to create and maintain an area of “defensible space” in the 100 feet surrounding a home. Within this area, trees, shrubs, and other vegetation must be selected, planted, pruned, and spaced so as to avoid directing fire to the home. Even closer to the home—within 30 feet—changes include removing combustible ground cover (e.g., mulch), firewood, stored lumber, and any other materials that can ignite and create enough heat to burn siding, break windows, or spread fire to the home. Features such as wooden fences, sheds, planters, and patio furniture can pose a risk because of how quickly they can ignite and spread fire to the house.
Zooming out, neighborhoods must be designed to quickly move people out of harm’s way and allow efficient access by emergency responders. Developments must have enough water supply to support firefighters’ activities, roads must be wide enough for vehicles to safely traverse during an evacuation and response, and nearby natural areas must be managed to create strategic advantages for fire suppression and protect access and escape routes. Subdivisions should be located to minimize exposure to hazardous terrain or vegetation.
Importantly, community fire adaptation must support vulnerable populations, including those with disabilities, seniors, non-native English speakers, and low-income groups. We need to consider a variety of access and functional needs when planning evacuations, temporary displacements, resources for long-term recovery, and funding for activities such as home retrofits.
All of these efforts will make our communities less vulnerable, while allowing land managers to take a holistic approach to fire adaption that recognizes and restores fire’s role as a natural disturbance.
How do we get there? Many fire-prone areas are already working to transform their homes, neighborhoods, and communities. For years, states like Nevada have promoted annual education campaigns focused on living with fire. Oregon recently passed comprehensive, bipartisan legislation that provides more than $220 million in investments to improve landscape resilience and wildfire response, implement minimum defensible space requirements, and incorporate wildfire risk maps into its statewide land-use planning program. California, an established leader in advancing wildfire policies and regulations, now requires real estate disclosures in wildfire hazard areas (which inform property owners about fire risk and the condition of a home), evacuation planning for subdivisions, and soon will be phasing in requirements for “ember-resistant zones” to reduce ignitions within the first five feet of a home.
Local governments, nonprofits, tribal nations, and other grassroots organizations are also advancing fire-adapted community approaches. These efforts include a range of activities, such as integrating traditional ecological knowledge and ecosystem-based solutions to restore fire as a natural process, investing in technologies that can detect fires more quickly and enable an effective response, and offering local programs that upgrade existing houses with ignition-resistant materials and manage overgrown landscapes.
Ultimately, we need to rethink our carbon-based lifestyles to curb rising greenhouse gas emissions and halt climate change. But the need to live with and adapt to fire is also immediate, and relying on one or two strategies is not enough. We must act boldly, comprehensively, and quickly to readjust our relationship with fire if we want our communities to survive, adapt, and thrive.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.