Urban fire or ‘wild’fire?
The previous segment highlighted how the tension between attribution and contribution to the effects of climate change – while an important discussion – shouldn’t hamstring being proactive in emergency preparedness, response, and recovery.
So, why the quotes around ‘wild’ in wildfire?
I worked in Haiti after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake of 2010.
Relief agencies were often flummoxed with how to respond and, more importantly, how to develop long-term recovery solutions. Why? Because this was one of the first – and worst – extensively urban disasters. Their experience was mostly with rural areas, so recovery housing typologies and approaches were ill-suited in the early days of recovery.
I mention this less to make a distinction between urban and non-urban, but to argue my second point: that the latest California fires are not ‘wild’fires – they are urban fires.
Bel-Air’s population density is 7,691 people per square miles. Santa Barbara’s population density is 4,716. Ojai’s is 1,773.
Sure, they ain’t San Francisco (18,573/square mile) or Chicago (11,898), both of which are un-arguably urban and two of the most famous cities that recovered from terrible urban fires and instituted exemplary fire codes. We could split hairs and consider the fires that have threatened Bel-Air, Santa Barbara, and Ojai to be suburban fires. The point is that the recent fires cannot be considered simply ‘wildland fires’ or ‘wildfires.’ These terms connote large, destructive fires that spreads quickly over woodland or brush.
Look at the photos above and below: while some chaparral and brush may be (or have been) present, so are (or were) people’s homes.
More specifically, the concept of the wildland–urban interface (or WUI), according to Radeloff et al. (2005) “refers to the zone of transition between unoccupied land and human development. Communities that are within 0.5 miles (0.80 km) of the zone may also be included.” It’s a good term, and becomes useful for areas that are somewhere between downtown San Francisco and Chicago and unspoiled, forested wilderness. And, the concept of the WUI is especially critical and timely as we are seeing the frontlines of the wildland-urban interface brought directly to the doorstep of many people.
However, what matters is less how terminology affects how fire is classified, but rather how it is managed.
In the next segment, we will explore how U.S. – and international – codes have been shaped to address large-scale fires such as at the wildland-urban interface, some challenges, and some opportunities for resilient fire planning.
Note: Portions of this post were originally published at davehamptonjr.com on December 13, 2017. Material has been significantly revised for UrbDeZine.