43% of new homes built between 1990 and 2010 occupy Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) areas
Adobe Stock/photo4luck

After one of the worst wildfire seasons on record, the Urban Land Institute (ULI), a nonprofit education and research institute dedicated to creating and sustaining thriving communities worldwide, has released a new report highlighting the devastating impact of wildfires on communities and how the real estate industry can best prepare for and respond to them in the future.

The report, Firebreak: Wildfire Resilience Strategies for Real Estate, was published with support from The Kresge Foundation, a private, philanthropic foundation that works to expand opportunities in America’s cities. It shows real estate developers, urban planners, and public leaders increasingly are aware of the land use drivers of wildfires, their concern about the consequences of wildfires, and how they are implementing asset and community scale resilience efforts.

“As we’ve seen in the West, the devastating impact of wildfires is continuing to increase year after year, and the real estate industry needs to be prepared to adapt to this new normal,” says W. Edward Walter, ULI CEO. “This new report, published in conjunction with our friends at The Kresge Foundation, lays out in clear detail how the industry can prepare for the future while showcasing projects and policies that have successfully incorporated wildfire resilience to reduce risk to communities.”

In the report, the ULI team explains how wildfires have become a national risk, not just regional ones. “While wildfire property risks are concentrated in the western U.S., wildfires can occur in every state,” states the press release. “Moreover, unhealthy air quality from wildfire smoke and the increasing costs of firefighting are challenges in many communities across the U.S.”

Another key takeaway from the report is the community and market disruption. Repeated evacuations, building loss, employment interruption, and the day-to-day stress of living with poor air quality, without electricity, or under threat of wildfire can harm individuals and disrupt entire communities.

Low-income communities, in particular, are often most vulnerable, given the burden of emergency and recovery expenses as well as the likelihood that lower value homes do not incorporate resilient technologies.

The report points to a broad range of options to mitigate wildfire damages and increase community health and safety, including structure hardening, defensible space and vegetation management, strategic density in lower-risk areas, hazard-informed comprehensive and regional planning, and tenant and community engagement.

With best-practice resilient construction, development, land, and infrastructure management, communities can significantly decrease the negative outcomes of wildfire events, more quickly recover, and thrive in the long run.

Firebreak also profiles developments, policies, and programs that have successfully incorporated wildfire resilience strategies, including:

  • Avimor outside of Boise, Idaho, a 35-square-mile development where ignition-resistant building materials as well as conservation and rigorous management of nearby open spaces have helped attract homeowners and commercial tenants while limiting damages from two wildfire events.
  • Rancho Mission Viejo in Southern California, the largest new community in California. Fire hazard and behavior assessments, defensible space protocols, and higher density in lower risk areas are central components of its wildfire resilient site layout, building design, and marketing.
  • Austin’s Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) Code, a new WUI code with best practice ignition-resistant standards for both new and remodeled structures, including building design requirements for ember protection and structure hardening.
  • Prescott, Arizona’s WUI Commission, a uniquely structured nonprofit that, with strong county and city support, is leading vegetation management and equitable funding programs to enhance wildfire resilience in Arizona.

“Once the worst of the 2020 fire season is behind us, it’s time to take a long, hard look at how we can make our communities safer from, and more resilient to, future wildfires,” says Molly McCabe, president at HaydenTanner and ULI member reviewer of the new report. “In addition to preparing their own developments, the real estate industry can partner with communities to make planning and development decisions—before the fires start—to give communities the best chance to thrive.”

Firebreak: Wildfire Resilience Strategies for Real Estate is available to download on ULI’s Knowledge Finder platform.