Planning the Wildland-Urban Interface

PAS Report 594

By Molly Mowery, AICP, Anna Read, AICP, Kelly Johnston, Tareq Wafaie, AICP

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This report is available free to all. This project was funded in part by the USDA Forest Service, with technical and financial assistance from state and private forestry programs. The USDA is an equal opportunity provider, employer, and lender.

Fire is a natural part of wildland ecosystems, helping to maintain forest health, control invasive species, and provide wildlife habitat. But in recent years the costs of wildfire to our communities have far outweighed the benefits — and wildfires keep getting bigger, more destructive, and more deadly.

Today, more than one-third of the U.S. population lives in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) — those areas where development mixes with undeveloped wildlands. The attraction of country living and closeness to nature is accelerating growth in the WUI. However, when wildfires strike, the WUI’s mix of buildings with forests and grasslands sets the stage for disaster.

A key issue — and one that planners can influence — is where and how we build our homes. The land-use decisions that planners shape can help build communities that are safer and more resilient to wildfire.  

PAS Report 594, Planning the Wildland-Urban Interface, offers planners an in-depth introduction to the WUI and wildfire basics, covering challenges, trends, and historical context along with the latest wildfire science. It then moves to solutions, providing a holistic planning framework and practical guidance on how to address WUI and wildfire challenges in plans, policies, and regulations. And it highlights opportunities for collaboration with fire departments, federal and state agencies, and other key stakeholders. Case study examples show how communities across the country are already planning for the WUI.


Executive Summary

About the Authors

Molly Mowery, AICP, is founder of the consulting practice Wildfire Planning International. Mowery codeveloped the national Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire program and designed FEMA’s Land Use Planning for Wildfire course. She is a director for the nonprofit Community Wildfire Planning Center and is a member of the Sustainable Development Code Advisory Board. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Naropa University and a master’s degree in city planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Anna Read, AICP, is a planner and researcher. She was previously a senior program development and research associate at the American Planning Association. Prior to joining APA, she worked on regional broadband planning efforts for the state of Missouri and as a project manager for the International City/County Management Association’s Center for Sustainable Communities. She has a master’s degree in city and regional planning from Cornell University.

Kelly Johnston, RPF, FBAN, has worked in wildland fire management since 1991 as a registered professional forester and wildland fire behavior analyst. Johnston is president of Wildland Professional Solutions, Inc., and provides expertise and leadership on a spectrum of innovative local to international projects. He currently serves as a director for the Community Wildfire Planning Center and is an appointed member of the NFPA Committee on Wildland and Rural Fire Protection.

Tareq Wafaie, AICP, is a principal in Clarion Associates’ Denver office. He focuses primarily on land use and zoning code revisions and natural hazard mitigation planning and implementation. He also served as the technical lead for developing the Planning for Hazards: Land Use Solutions for Colorado guidebook. Before joining Clarion, Wafaie worked in both private and public sectors working with communities large and small. He is a frequent conference speaker on ethics, hazards, and other planning topics.

Product Details

Page Count
Date Published
April 1, 2019
Adobe PDF
American Planning Association

Table of Contents


Executive Summary

Chapter 1: Why Planning the WUI Matters
Challenges in the WUI
Environmental Concerns
Opportunities for Planning the WUI
About This Report

Chapter 2: Understanding the WUI
Defining the WUI
History of the WUI
Wildfires in the WUI
Planning in the WUI

Chapter 3: Breaking the WUI Fire Disaster Sequence
Defining Wildfire
Fire Ecology Basics
WUI Fire Science Basics
Factors Influencing Wildland Fire Behavior
Fire Behavior and Structure Vulnerabilities
Influence of Other Factors on WUI Disasters

Chapter 4: Identifying and Assessing Wildfire Hazard and Risk
Wildfire Hazard and Wildfire Risk
Wildfire Hazard and Risk Assessments

Chapter 5: A Holistic WUI Planning Framework
A Holistic Planning Approach
Balancing Community Priorities
Engaging Stakeholders

Chapter 6: WUI Planning Tools
Community Visioning and Community Engagement
The Comprehensive Plan
Functional Plans
Subarea Plans
Plans and Public Investments

Chapter 7: WUI Regulations
Key Considerations When Selecting WUI Regulations
Subdivision Regulations
Zoning Code
Building Code
Fire Code
Wildland-Urban Interface Code
Strategies for Adopting WUI Regulations

Chapter 8: What Does the Future Hold?
Planners’ Roles in the WUI
Addressing Challenges
Identifying Uncertainties
Areas for Future Research