Article | Chile: Wildfire Risk Reduction and Territorial Planning

By: Francisca Yunis Richter

Published on August 2, 2023

Integrating the conditions of wildfire risk reduction into territorial planning is essential to face the challenges of urban growth; however, several territorial planning systems do not adequately address this risk, preventing the development of strategies for its management.

Globally, wildfires have become a latent threat, especially in Mediterranean regions, due to the climate crisis and changes in land use (González et al, 2020). Likewise, population growth and housing demand are causing an increase in migration to city limits, increasing the risk of fires in the wildland-urban interface since these settlements have large concentrations of homes and infrastructures that adjoin or intermingle with flammable vegetation.

Disaster risk reduction aims to prevent new ones and reduce existing risks, strengthening population resilience, governance systems, and the territory. Currently, territorial planning expects to integrate considerations of wildfire risk reduction in affected areas, especially in wildland-urban interface zones. However, spatial planning systems generally do not adequately address the challenge of considering this risk.

Source: Incendios arden en el centro-sur de Chile (Santa Juana) NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin and Allison Nussbaum, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey and MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS LANCE and GIBS/Worldview. Story by Emily Cassidy with input from René Garreaud, University of Chile.

Territorial Planning Systems in Chile

The spatial distribution of wildfires in Chile reflects an increase in critical areas exposed to the risk and occurrence of fires, becoming a challenge for fire prevention implementation, management, and combat policies, especially the application of territorial planning instruments (Miranda et al, 2021). In the central-southern zone of the country, there are more than 40 communes at high risk of wildfires, and the majority of them correspond to rural areas close to large concentrations of the population where lots or subdivisions have proliferated without further management of the territory (Fuentes, 2022 ).

The mega-fires in Valparaíso in 2014 and the wildfires in 2017, which mainly affected the regions of the central-southern zone of Chile, O’Higgins, Maule, and BioBío, highlighted the need to advance in planning and wildfire risk management at different administrative scales (Cartes, Baeriswyl & Zazo-Moratalla, 2021). The incorporation of wildfires in the territorial planning instruments (IPT) in Chile has been a complex and ambiguous attempt, where the regulatory rigidity covers mainly urban areas, limiting its implementation in rural areas. Therefore, the Municipalities have transformed into a fundamental local organization for the development of communes exposed to wildfires.

Source: Communal Planning State Report in Chile, CCHC (2022)
Source: Communal Planning State Report in Chile – Validity PRC, CCHC (2022)

At the local level, municipalities manage the application of national regulations and the application of the Communal Regulatory Plans (PRC), which are mainly associated with land use and technical regulations for building projects in each commune (González-Mathiesen & March 2023). The PRCs are fundamental for developing communes in high-risk areas since they establish regulations that define land use and zoning, urban limits, densification, and communal extension, among other dispositions. However, the scope of the PRC related to anthropogenic disasters does not have further development or regulatory dispositions. Therefore, there are no obligations or oversight when facing wildfires.

Currently, IPTs in Chile allow disaster risk reduction. However, the national legislative framework has a simple scope at the local level (articles 105 and 116 of the LGUC and articles 2.1.7, 2.1.10, and 2.1.17 of the OGUC). Within this framework, some municipalities include wildfire considerations in their local ordinances, mainly associated with vegetation management and distancing between fuel material and buildings (González-Mathiesen & March 2023). However, their application is limited by regulatory scope.

According to the 2022 report from the Chilean Chamber of Construction (CCHC) about the state of communal planning in Chile, of the 346 communes in the country, 90 do not have PRC, which means that almost 2 million people live without this territorial planning instrument.

Furthermore, the LGUC indicates that the PRC must be updated periodically within at least ten years; however, of the communes that have PRC, the majority do not have the established period, where 43% have a validity of more than 15 years old (CCHC, 2022) this means that although 74% of the communes in Chile have a Regulatory Plan, only 17% have their PRC under current regulations.

Although the application of territorial planning instruments is fundamental for the development of cities, there is no regulatory scope for wildfire reduction. Therefore, there is no oversight about the implementation and management of strategies for wildfire risk reduction. On the other hand, planning through the PRC is fundamental to community development in multiple dimensions. Therefore, the lack of this instrument in high-risk areas and its updating directly affects the construction of buildings, as well as the urban development of the communes.

References

Cámara Chilena de la Construcción (CCHC). (2022) “Informe Estado Planificación Comunal en Chile” – Gerencia de Estudios y Políticas Públicas.

Fuentes. C (2022). Advierten Elevado Riesgo de incendios por lluvias invernales sobre lo normal y llegada de altas temperaturas – Universidad de Chile. Available at:  https://uchile.cl/noticias/193139/alto-riesgo-de-incendios-por-invierno-lluvioso-y-altas-temperaturas (Accessed 28/07/2023)

Gonzalez-Mathiesen, C. March, A. (2022): Long-established rules and emergent challenges: spatial planning and wildfires in Chile, International Planning Studies. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13563475.2022.2136629 (Accessed 27/07/2023)

González-Mathiesen, C. March, A (2023). Whole-of-Cycle Planning to Reduce Wildfire Impacts. Wildfire Exchange. Available at: https://wildfirex.com.au/whole-of-cycle-planning-to-reduce-wildfire-impacts/ (Accessed 28/07/2023)

González-Mathiesen, C. Ruane, S. March, A. (2020) Integrating wildfire risk management and spatial planning – A historical review of two Australian planning systems. International Journal of Disaster Risk Reduction. Volume 53. Science Direct. Available at: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2212420920314862 (Accessed 28/07/2023)

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Kirschner, J. Clark, J. Boustras, G. (2023). Governing wildfires: toward a systematic analytical framework. Ecology and Society. 28. 10.5751/ES-13920-280206. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/370140116_Governing_wildfires_toward_a_systematic_analytical_framework (Accessed 27/07/2023)

Ley General de Urbanismo y Construcciones (LGUC). (1975) DFL Nº458 (1975). Chile. Available at: https://www.bcn.cl/leychile/navegar?idNorma=13560 (Accessed 31/07/2023)

Miranda, A. Carrasco, J. González, M. Pais, C. Lara. Altamirano, A. Weintraub, D. Syphard, A .(2021) Policy brief (CR)2: Identificando la interfaz urbana-rural en Chile: condiciones que determinan el mayor riesgo de incendios. Available at: https://www.cr2.cl/policy-brief-cr2-identificando-la-interfaz-urbana-rural-en-chile-condiciones-que-determinan-el-mayor-riesgo-de-incendios/ (Accessed 31/07/2023)

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