A map of the area where the five western US communities studied are located.
22 Aug 2018

Innovative land use planning tools to avoid wildfires: A study of five Western US communities


Wildfires across the American West are increasing in frequency, size, and severity. The impacts from climate change, coupled with ongoing development within the wildland-urban interface (WUI), further exacerbate the risks from wildfires. In response, some urban areas in the West are addressing the growing threat of wildfires using innovative land use planning tools.

From an article on headwaterseconomics.org

Case studies show how five urban areas in the West are using innovative land use planning tools to adapt to the increasing risks from wildfires. The cities studied were Austin, San Diego, Flagstaff, Santa Fe and Boulder.

Wildfires increasingly are an urban problem, often repeatedly impacting the same communities over time.

This research profiles how five urban areas in the West are using land use planning tools to reduce wildfire risks.

Individual case studies provide valuable examples and lessons for other communities to learn from in their efforts to mitigate wildfire risks.

This report [and high resolution print version] profiles how five cities and counties in the region—including Austin, Texas, Boulder, Colorado, Flagstaff, Arizona, San Diego, California, and Santa Fe, New Mexico—are adapting to the increasing risks of wildfires through improved land use planning.

While each case study demonstrates a unique approach toward wildfire mitigation, together they represent a suite of land use planning strategies (Summary Table) that can be selectively applied elsewhere. To read the synopsis, see below or click on the Resources links to the right to read the full report and individual case study profiles.

Headwaters Economics also is working with Wildfire Planning International to provide Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire (CPAW).


Wildfires always have been a defining feature of the American West, yet risk to life and property is accelerating as a result of development trends directed towards the region’s Wildland-Urban Interface

(WUI). In addition, extended droughts, unseasonably warm temperatures, and other climate-induced impacts are influencing the frequency and size of wildfires. Some urban areas in the West, such as the cities and counties of Austin, Boulder, Flagstaff, San Diego, and Santa Fe, are effectively responding to the increasing threat of wildfires in creative ways. In profiling these urban case studies, several important essons can be gleaned regarding land use planning for wildfires:

Planning successes took years of effort, and an in-depth application of planning tools was not the first strategy communities utilized when seeking to reduce wildfire risks. Forest management e.g., thinning and other fuel treatments), Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPPs), and initial building code regulations were typically pursued prior to adoption of more stringent land use standards or the pursuit of a Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) Code.

While each community might have unique wildfire concerns, all of them take a multi-pronged approach to wildfire risk reduction. This comprehensive framework is likely a common denominator for achieving success with land use planning efforts. In other words, implementing land use planning tools to reduce wildfire risk, absent other mitigation and outreach activities, may be challenging without incorporating a broader and more holistic outlook.

Communities are addressing new and existing development, but such approaches often require extra innovation and resources. Boulder County’s Wildfire Partners Program and San Diego’s brush management policies provide compelling examples of applying integrative land use planning mechanisms to reduce overall wildfire risk to the community.

Practitioners, policymakers, and the public all have an important role in adapting a community’s built environment to wildfire risks and associated climate change impacts. Examples of wildfire risk reduction strategies described in this report demonstrate a community’s collaborative capacities when residents, city officials, and land agencies combine forces to manage wildfire risk.