In the previous segment, we discussed the misuse of the term ‘wildfire’ when applied to the recent California fires and the concept of the wildland urban interface (WUI).
My third and, arguably, most important point is that we plan accordingly. Rather than wring our collective hands in despair or split hairs over semantics and terminology, we must plan and manage land use better and more strategically in areas at risk of large-scale fires. Innovations in landscape and building design are also critical.
The great news is that the stage for proactive design and planning has been set for some time, and continues – as do most national and international standards – to be refined based on informed experience.
The International Wildland-Urban Interface Code
Andrew Kollar, Chairman of the American Institute of Architects National Codes and Standards Committee – and my colleague in the Boston Society of Architects Committee on Resilient Environments (CORE) – notes that the WUI concept is not new, nor is the international code community’s response to fire.
For properties within the WUI, at least two sets of codes come into consideration:
- the International Fire Code (IFC)
- the International Wildland-Urban Interface Code (IWUIC)
I say at least two, because the IWUIC is a supplemental or ‘overlay’ code which compliments the base requirements of other international codes or “other comparable model codes and standards.”
The International Code Council published the first edition of the International Wildland-Urban Interface Code (IWUIC) in 2003 and has periodically updated and issued new versions every three years. The preface of the 2015 version notes that “this code is founded on principles intended to mitigate the hazard from fires through the development of provisions that adequately protect health, safety, and welfare; provisions that do not necessarily increase construction costs; provisions that do not restrict the use of new materials, products or methods of construction; and provisions that do not give preferential treatment to particular types or classes of materials, products or methods of construction.”
Apart from the ‘new normal’ of greater frequency and severity due climate change of which Gov. Brown warns, Kollar sees professional due diligence as part of a continuum, asserting that architects and engineers “have always striven to uphold the health, safety, and welfare of the public.”
In other words, while the public’s health, safety, and welfare is the bedrock, innovation and initiative by the design and planning professions and the construction industry do have their place and are backed by robust codes.
The IWUIC is quite comprehensive, looking beyond the building scale and considering the totality of the site. Some standouts include that design and engineering teams provide:
- Vicinity plans, showing other structures, slopes, vegetation, fuel breaks, water supply systems and access roads within 300 feet of the property line.
- Site plans, showing topography, width and percent of grade of access roads, landscape and vegetation details, site water supply systems, existing or proposed overhead utilities, and the locations, occupancy and construction classifications of main structures and outbuildings.
- Vegetation management, fire protection, or other plans as conditions require.
- Fire Hazard Severity Form, to quantify the level of threat from fire (moderate, high, or extreme).
However, as with all codes, since the details are usually well-covered, the devil is in the adoption and enforcement in real-world settings.
Kollar notes that the level of comfort that design professionals have in using the code is an important factor. So is the ability for communities to be able to enforce the code as part of their plan review and inspection responsibilities. Piecemeal adoption or enforcement is a very real possibility.
“Supplemental codes present unique criteria that are not always readily accessible, and it is imperative that all parties involved refrain from waiving / omitting parts thereof, ” writes Kollar.
Other real-world concerns include existing conditions and maintenance. “The IWUIC is almost 15 years old; most of the built environment is not,” writes Kollar. “That unbalanced equation means that while new development should be better prepared for wildfires, neighboring properties may not.”
Fuel breaks, according to the IWUIC, are “areas strategically located for fighting anticipated fires, where the native vegetation has been permanently modified or replaced so that fires burning into it can be more easily controlled. Fuel breaks divide fire-prone areas into smaller areas for easier fire control and to provide access for fire fighting.”
Because maintenance is difficult to address – and enforce – under code, Kollar suggests that a conversation within the architecture and engineering community about long-term code compliance related to preserving fuel breaks and sources as well as vegetation control might be valuable.
A proactive and resilient approach
Finally, circling back to the first segment of this series and California Gov. Brown’s ‘new normal’: the changing frequency and severity of catastrophic events due to a changing climate.
As the controversy continues unabated over how to nudge FEMA’s Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) into being tied to predictive modeling and forecasting rather than solely historic data, Kollar sees pertinent to the discussion of planning for fire two scenarios for both the design community and the code development process. The first is a reactive model, which assumes – as do the current FIRMs – that the past might be an adequate predictor of the future, a “punctuated path whereby change occurs incrementally in response to a changing world”.
The second scenario would forge “…a new path for code development more closely aligned with designing for projected future social and climatic conditions. In this scenario, the ongoing code development serves as a chance to re-calibrate the performance criteria based on refinements and other improvements to the models. This is a proactive model.”
Let’s approach the lessons of the California fires and other similar catastrophic events – events that are naturally occurring, occurring more often, and with greater severity – as an opportunity to help us continue to refine a more nimble, proactive, and resilient approach.
Special thanks to Andrew J. Kollar for his significant contributions and to the following for the use of their images: Tony Morain
Communications Director, Direct Relief; Kelly B. Huston, California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (CalOES); Scott L. Stephens, Professor of Fire Science / Co-Director UC Center for Forestry and Fire ESPM Department, UC Berkeley;