Wildfires have always been a part of the U.S. landscape, particularly in the drier Western states. But 2020 stands out, as massive, destructive wildfires—fueled in part by extreme weather and changing climate conditions—have broken records across the region and raised important questions regarding how the real estate industry can help communities thrive despite repeated fires.

These questions, as well as solutions, are explored in Firebreak: Wildfire Resilience Strategies for Real Estate, a new report from the Urban Land Institute.

Firebreak, published with input from over 50 ULI members including myself, plus outside experts as well with support from the Kresge Foundation, shows the increasing awareness among real estate developers, urban planners, and public leaders of the land use drivers of wildfires, their concern about the consequences of these fires, and how they are implementing asset- and community-scale resilience efforts.

The toll of wildfires on human lives, the landscape, and economies is personal. The specter of wildfires looms large here in Montana, where I live. We’re always on edge as we move toward the start of wildfire season.

When the wildfire smoke blew in this fall, we shut the windows and doors in our non-air-conditioned home and turned on three HEPA filters that ran 24/7. Our air quality index registered at an unhealthy 169. My sister in California readied horse trailers to aid anyone who needed help evacuating. My 80-year-old parents in Oregon identified an evacuation footpath in the event their one road out was blocked by fire. And one of the places we spent summers on the McKenzie River near Vida, Oregon, is completely gone, burned by the Holiday Farm fire.

A hazy sky and unhealthy air in Montana as wildfires burn nearby in August 2020. (Photo by author Molly McCabe)

Wildfires became a national concern this season, with smoke reaching my ULI colleagues all the way in Virginia. We also saw the compounding effects of wildfires with other conditions, especially the coronavirus pandemic. First responders and evacuees risked contracting the virus as they worked and sheltered near each other. Temporary housing for those who needed it was difficult to find amid social distancing recommendations, simultaneous multiple large evacuations, and the country’s ongoing housing affordability crisis and housing shortage. In addition, the communities affected by wildfires must recover during a significant economic downturn.

And what of economies and real estate? Wildfires cause massive destruction and affect our ability to insure assets, endangering the real estate industry’s ability to secure financing. In the long run, the interruption risk has major impacts on residents and tenants and their willingness to be in wildfire-prone locations. This gets to the heart of the dilemma—whether we have fiscally stable, healthy, thriving, and sustainable communities, because municipalities rely on tax revenues. And that leaves those of us living in fire-prone areas with one existential question: where do we go from here?

In the short term, we hope for a break in the weather and relief for the millions who have been affected by the fires. We also need to make sure that wildland firefighters have the resources to do their jobs safely and effectively. Then, once the worst of the 2020 fire season is behind us, we must take a long, hard look at how we can make our communities safer from and more resilient to future wildfires.

This is where the best practices detailed in Firebreak and the expertise provided by ULI members are so crucial. Wildfire-resilient development and design choices made at the asset level protect structures and inhabitants, reduce fire spread through communities, and protect value for owners and investors. ULI members are uniquely situated to share lessons learned from their experience implementing wildfire resilience tactics and to build support for wider implementation.

In September 2019, ULI Colorado convened a technical assistance panel to help Jefferson County and the Evergreen Legacy Fund reduce barriers to redevelopment of a historic downtown area. Considering local flood and wildfire risks, the panel offered recommendations related to structure hardening, zoning overlays, connectivity, financing, and resilience.

In addition to preparing their own developments, ULI members can partner with their communities to make planning and development decisions—before the fires start—to give those communities the best chance to thrive. These discussions may include advocating for best practices related to policy or for design addressing the community scale, but also they are likely to include difficult decisions related to how and where to build, and how best to support housing affordability and access in the face of wildfire vulnerability.

Wildfire resilience, accessibility, community design, and fiscal responsibility should function as windows through which we can see and make future decisions on planning, physical design, and ongoing operations. Resilience requires a collaborative process, constantly refined and ever evolving. The time to act is now.

ULI members can read and download Firebreak: Wildfire Resilience Strategies for Real Estate on knowledge.uli.org and uli.org/wildfires. This report was produced by ULI’s Urban Resilience program and the ULI Center for Sustainability and Economic Performance, which provides leadership and support to real estate and land use professionals to invest in energy-efficient, healthy, resilient, and sustainable buildings and communities.