New rules to protect homes from wildfire ignite controversy
Part of the Okanogan wildfire complex flares up on Aug. 21, 2015 in the hills near Omak, Washington. The fires, which killed three firefighters and critically injured another, threatened homes and communities throughout the area. (Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
New state building codes aim to protect properties on the edge between urban and wooded areas – a fast growing type of space known as the wildland urban interface – from wildfire.
But the code changes in Washington state have sparked backlash from builders, cities and environmentalists who say the rules are confusing, will drive up housing costs and could result in an excessive number of trees getting cut down.
The codes at the center of the controversy are already approved and will take effect March 15. The guidelines, which apply to new construction or remodels, call for roofs, siding, decks, doors, windows and other parts of homes to be made out of fire resistant materials.
They also include requirements for “defensible space” around buildings – essentially a buffer zone between a structure and the surrounding vegetation. The size of a property’s defensible space ranges from 30 to 100 feet and depends on a hazard assessment that looks at factors like building materials, water availability for firefighting and road access near the structure.
Based on the new maps, areas near major cities, including Spokane, Olympia, Yakima and Issaquah, would be subject to the new rules.
“There’s just so many questions that are still unanswered,” said Andrea Smith, policy and research manager at the Building Industry Association of Washington.
The wildland urban interface is where developed land transitions into forests, rangeland and other natural areas. As cities and suburbs grow and rural homes sprawl, the number of people living in the WUI (pronounced “woo-ee,” for short) is increasing. This raises the risk of devastating brush, grass or forest fires.
Between 2002 and 2016, the U.S. Fire Administration estimates more than 3,000 structures each year were lost in wildland urban interface fires, with that number rising over those years.
Supporters of the new building code say it could help prevent wildfires from destroying homes in these areas. But opponents argue that the map that guides which areas the new requirements will cover is faulty, and include low-risk places that should be left out.
A year ago, the Oregon forester withdrew a wildfire risk map following an uproar. The state is still working on a new map for Oregon and related building codes that will affect high-risk areas.
Lawmakers in 2018 asked the state Building Code Council to write wildfire safety rules for new construction and remodeling based, in part, on a map from the Department of Natural Resources that outlines areas in the state considered to be in the wildland urban interface.
This map is atop a growing list of concerns over the new codes.
In a letter to the council, Carl Schroeder, deputy director of government relations at the Association of Washington Cities, wrote that the map “ignores the fundamental differences in wildfire risk in different parts of the state.” Schroeder asked for clarity from the council on how the map interacts with other means of identifying wildfire risk.
He said the map is not consistent with other agencies’ processes for determining fire risk, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Wildfire Risk Index and the U.S. Forest Service’s Wildfire Risk to Communities process.
DNR makes clear that its map is not intended to provide an end-all assessment of fire risk, but rather a tool to help gauge it.
The Building Code Council has agreed to take up the mapping issue at their November meeting and to bring in the Department of Natural Resources to talk more about its map.
Another concern with the codes is the strict standards for trees and other vegetation around homes.
Within a property’s 30 to 100 feet of defensible space, the code requires owners to regularly remove dead wood, tree litter and other vegetation that can burn. Trees planted in that space must be at least 10 feet apart from each other as well as 10 feet from structures.
In a letter to the council before last week’s meeting, Michael Feerer, executive director of the Whatcom Million Trees Project, said trees are essential to reducing the amount of planet-warming carbon in the atmosphere.
“The new WUI code flies in the face of that urgent need and contradicts climate mitigation plans by numerous local jurisdictions,” he wrote.
Having a tree canopy, Feerer and others say, is good for the environment and essential for cooling homes during extreme heat.
The defensible space requirements could also clash with local tree ordinances intended to increase tree cover.
In Tumwater, plans for new tree canopy rules have stalled as the city awaits guidance on the wildland urban interface code.
Brad Medrud, planning manager for the city, told the Building Code Council last week that Tumwater was not sure whether there was any local discretion on the new codes.
“The WUI is really unclear,” Medrud said. “It’s open to multiple interpretations.”
Meanwhile, requirements for fire-resistant, often more expensive, materials in new construction and remodels is drawing pushback from builders.
The Building Industry Association of Washington estimated the mandates could add at least $4,300 to the cost of a home and could limit construction in some areas, a concern at a time when the state is trying to bridge an affordable housing shortfall.
“It’s very problematic because it’s almost bounding growth into the existing areas we have now,” the association’s Smith said.
The council is meeting again Nov. 17 to discuss the wildfire code, but council members disagree on what, if any, changes should be made.
Most can agree that the map is imperfect, but some say it’s not up to the council to change it.
Councilman Micah Chappell, who helped lead the writing of the codes, said the council likely doesn’t have the power to change the map as the legislation that spurred the code revisions left mapping to the Department of Natural Resources.
Other council members take issue with the defensible space requirements. Craig Holt, who represents the general construction industry on the council, said the defensible space requirements are broken and the code changes go too far.
“The way it’s set up right now is a disaster waiting to happen,” he said.
But Chappell pointed to other states tightening defensible space rules. California, for example, is considering rules to severely limit plants within five feet of homes.
“It’s been proven time and time again that defensible space works to protect structures,” Chappell said.
Even if the council comes to an agreement, it may be too late to make any meaningful changes to the code.
Councilman Peter Rieke, representing people with disabilities, said he was supportive of those raising concerns, but that he didn’t see any possibilities for amendments until the next code cycle, which would not go into effect until 2026.
If the council does want to act sooner, it could pass an emergency rule to pause or change some of the rules before their March effective date, or look to the Legislature to approve changes in the next session, which begins in January.
Rep. Alex Ramel, D-Bellingham, who serves on the council, said last week that “huge questions” still surround the new codes, but he doesn’t know how the council can overhaul them before they go into effect.
“I don’t know what the right direction is,” he said. “We do need to dig in and take a closer look at this.”
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