By: Dr. Constanza González and Professor Alan March
Published on March 20, 2023
The recent wildfires in Chile, specifically in the Ñuble, Biobío and Araucanía regions, had significant consequences. These include 458.000 hectares burned, the result of a total of 255 fire sources, of which 182 are controlled and 25 remain being fought. To date, the death toll is 26 people and 2,450 homes destroyed. In this time of recovery and reconstruction, it is appropriate to consider how we can take considered actions to reduce risks in the long term. A fundamental starting point is considering wildfires as a cyclical disaster process. While variations exist, the disaster cycle has three interrelated components: Prepare, Respond and Recover.
The first phase is Preparation, which refers to the wide range of actions associated with minimising the consequences of wildfires, prior to any immediate threat of an event. Response occurs during a wildfire, focussed on minimising negative outcomes. It includes the deployment of emergency services such as firefighters, evacuations, and allocating resources to areas most in need. It also includes citizens, businesses, and other government departments such as health, police, army and local governments taking action. The last phase is Recovery, which deals with the impacts of a wildfire; injuries and deaths, loss of property and livelihoods, and damage to infrastructure and the natural environment. It may focus on reconstruction, relocation of structures and services, and allocation of disaster relief funding.
It is common to see increased spending on response capabilities and significant funding for speedy reconstruction after major wildfires. These actions are not inherently wrong – however, we argue that ongoing, long-term investment in urban planning offers the most benefits. Five main principles aid urban planning-focused response, recovery and preparation: (1) Avoidance, which separates vulnerable things such as houses, infrastructure, and services from hazardous vegetation, and significantly reduces the chances of fire damage and injury. (2) Reduction of Hazards manages vegetation and reduces the likelihood and severity of fires. Urban planning, in association with landowners and resource managers, can achieve this so that wildfire impacts are minimised near assets and humans. (3) Improved Resistance of Structures related to design, materials, and building maintenance through building codes and planning standards, that ensures that structures can withstand fires and protect human life. (4) Designing for Response which can integrate key elements that facilitate response agencies actions through urban planning; road widths and turning points, space for active defense of structures, provision of water sources, signage for fire services, siting of fire stations, and data availability to aid response. (5) Planning for Recovery, seeks to ensure that reconstruction takes into account the prior principles so that the long-term risks are avoided, particularly when speedy action is desired after a major event. This may involve rebuilding in new locations, and changing the design of structures, neighborhoods, or even entire settlements.
Acting to reduce wildfire risks requires long-term integrated actions that draw together a range of actors and sectors. Urban planning and design are currently underused aspects among the range of actions required to manage wildfire risks. Planning can be central to coordinating actions in the built environment, particularly when various actions occur over long time periods in urban areas.