San Diego is one of the most expensive housing markets in the country and has the fourth highest homeless population. Planning activist Murtaza Baxamusa identifies four needed measures.
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;
Further reading / exploring
Almost half a century ago I was in a new high school and held in my hand a mimeographed sheet inviting all and sundry to apply to be exchange students with the American Field Service. I thought about it all night long, then applied with an essay about how I really wanted to go to Japan and learn Japanese, as I was so taken with Japanese culture. To my surprise, I was selected as the school’s exchange student, and sent to Denmark.Continue Reading Cycling through the Danish Land of Enchantment
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?Continue Reading Lessons from the California Fires: Climate Change Impacts and Proactive Planning (part 2)
What is a Bridge Shelter Program?
It is defined by the concept that this shelter is a stop on the way to permanent or rapid re-housing. At the moment, staying here is indefinite.Continue Reading Alpha Project Temporary Bridge Program: A Review
This multi-part series will use the recent fires in California as a lens to explore the limitations of attributing the effects climate change to specific catastrophic events, the distinctions between wildfire and urban fire, and the role of national and international codes in addressing these events, which are occurring with increasing intensity and frequency.
Attribution and contribution
With ‘wild’fires still raging across southern California, Gov. Jerry Brown warns that megafires may be the new normal.
A cursory glance at media coverage over the past few years shows a trend of (thankfully) moving past “does climate change exist?” toward “is climate change to blame for this disaster?” Recent examples include VOX’s ‘Climate change did not “cause” Harvey or Irma, but it’s a huge part of the story.’ The media reports and Gov. Brown’s recent warnings are classic examples of the tensions between attribution and contribution.Continue Reading Lessons from the California Fires: Climate Change Impacts and Proactive Planning (part 1)
Can you believe that it is almost the middle of December already? Well, it is that time of the year again when many of us think about giving and receiving presents. I previously shared some ideas on the perfect gifts for planners, architects, landscape architects, and other related professionals in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016 which have turned out to be a few of my most read articles. I am glad to know that my lists have been helpful (and perhaps entertaining?) to some planners and/or fans of planners. Without further ado, here is my 2017 edition of Presents for Plannerds:Continue Reading Presents for Plannerds: 2017 Edition
First, San Diego gave its public housing authority, San Diego Housing Commission, free reign to opt out of following federal laws aimed at protecting housing subsidy recipients. As a result, San Diego Housing Commission has and continues to create policies that adversely impact the low-income tenants for whom it receives federal funding to protect. One example – SDHC’s Community Choices program encourages low-income families to spend 50% of their income on rent.Continue Reading What San Diego is Doing Wrong: Housing Law 101
Vancouver B.C. Metropolitan Core is famous among urbanists for what is now called the “Vancouver Style,” neighborhoods of point towers of 40 stories or more, with a planned tower separation to preserve public views and maximize privacy. The towers have small floor plates set on top of a street wall podium lined with three-story townhouses, or retail storefronts with offices above. There is landscaping on top of the podium and parking underground. Vancouverites have embraced density and walkability in the urban core, the envy of many of us from stateside.Continue Reading How Metropolitan Vancouver Is Reorganizing Suburban Growth Around Transit
With Thanksgiving and the holiday season fast approaching, this is perhaps a good time to look ahead to 2018. Specifically, I would like to talk about some events that planners, architects, and landscape architects can look forward to in the new year. Continue Reading Looking Ahead to 2018: Events for Planners