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Building Resilience to Wildfires in the Wildland-Urban Interface

The Administration is taking steps to protect and prepare Americans from the increased threat of wildfires.

The threat of wildfires is increasing in the United States.  In 2015, over 68,000 wildfires in the United States burned more than 4,636 structures and ten million acres—the highest number of acres burned on record and more acreage than all of New Jersey and Massachusetts combined.  The Third National Climate Assessment predicts a continuing trend toward hotter, drier weather and earlier snowmelts, which will mean drier landscapes and continued increase in wildfire risks in the future.  The annual estimates on structure loss due to wildfire have grown dramatically over the past six decades.  Since 1990, 60 percent of new homes nationally have been built in areas known as the wildland-land urban interface—those areas where houses meet or intermingle with undeveloped wildland vegetation.  Such development is increasing the amount of land at risk to wildfire by 4,000 acres per day, nearly 2 million acres per year, and is threatening more than 120 million people.

The presence of more people and buildings in the wildland-urban interface make wildfire management more complex and protection of lives and structures more challenging.  Federal departments and agencies have an estimated 6,256 buildings greater than 5,000 square feet in wildland-urban interface locations. 

Today, the White House, in collaboration with the Departments of Interior, Agriculture, and Homeland Security, brought together stakeholders to identify opportunities to work together on wildfire mitigation and firefighter safety, and to identify further policy actions needed to enhance community resilience to wildfire within the wildland-urban interface.  At the event, a number of Federal, State, local, tribal and non-Government leaders committed to taking a multi-scale, collaborative approach to address the challenges posed by wildfire in the wildland-urban interface; advancing community resilience in the wildland-urban interface; managing adjacent landscapes wisely; and continuing to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of wildland fire response.   

Additionally, at the event, the White House announced a new Executive Order for enhancing wildfire risk mitigation in the wildland-urban interface.  The Executive Order: Wildland-Urban Interface Federal Risk Mitigation will mitigate wildfire risk to Federal buildings located in the wildland-urban interface, reduce risks to people, and help minimize property loss to wildfire. The new Executive Order directs Federal agencies to apply the wildfire-resistant design provisions delineated in the 2015 edition of the International Wildland-Urban Interface Code promulgated by the International Code Council, or an equivalent code.  These codes, which encompass the current understanding of wildfire hazard potential, will help increase safety and protect the lives of people who live or work in these buildings. 

Today’s announcements take important steps toward increasing our nation’s preparedness to wildfire.  Over the past year, the Administration has worked to strengthen the security and resilience of buildings across the nation, including by establishing Federal risk management standards for floods and earthquakes and by encouraging the development of resilient building codes.  Today’s event and announcements recognize that we must continue that progress to address the threats of wildfire, and take action to address resilience holistically across the country.

Alice Hill is Special Assistant to the President & Senior Director for Resilience Policy at the National Security Council.

Tamara Dickinson is Principal Assistant Director for Environment & Energy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.