Oregon county changes zoning to require new construction to be low density

Structures farther apart are less likely to ignite neighboring homes during a wildfire

Deschutes County in Oregon has approved new zoning that will require new construction on the west side of Bend to be low density and fire-resistant.

Oregon Public Broadcasting reports that the new regulation will result in 90 percent fewer homes in the area than the previous code permitted.

One contributing factor that led to more than 15,000 homes being destroyed in two fires in California in 2018, the Camp and Carr Fires, was the close spacing between the structures.

Paradise Camp fire homes burned
A neighborhood on Debbie Lane in Paradise, California, before and after the Camp Fire that started November 8, 2018. The homes were 14 to 18 feet apart.

Cities, counties, and planning boards (where they exist) are often under pressure to approve new housing developments. They want to expand their tax base. Developers try to fit as many homes into a new subdivision as possible to maximize their investment. This too often results in homes that are 20-feet apart. If one is ignited by a burning ember that may have traveled a quarter of a mile from a fire (or a burning home) the radiant heat alone can ignite the homes on both sides. Then you can have a self-powered conflagration spreading house to house through a city. As long as the structures are that close together, the homeowners have not reduced the fuel in the Home Ignition Zone within 100 feet of the structure, and the home itself is not built to FireWise standards, a massive disaster can be the result.

Reducing the chances that a fire in a populated area will turn into a disaster that burns thousands of homes involves at least three categories of factors, in addition to weather:

  • Envelope of the structure itself: characteristics of the roof, vents, siding, doors, windows, foundation, fences, eaves, and decks. A FEMA publication (13 MB) has excellent detailed recommendations. Headwaters Economics found that the cost of building a fire-resistant home is about the same as a standard home.
  • Home Ignition Zone — topography and fuel within 100 feet.
  • Community infrastructure and planning: distance to nearby structures, evacuation capability, safety zones, road and driveway width, turnarounds at the end of roads, signage, and emergency water supply. Again, the FEMA document has great recommendations.

More information about how to prevent wildfires from wiping out communities.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Kelly.
Typos or errors, report them HERE.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+

4 thoughts on “Oregon county changes zoning to require new construction to be low density”

  1. I’ve said this on a previous post about this topic — while this might be great for reducing house-to-house ignitions, it has the potential to greatly expand the WUI if the demand for housing is constant. That’s going to bring on a different level of complication to both the frequency and management of fires in that interface and it’s going to increase the other negative ecological impacts of housing (e.g. more roads, more invasive species, etc..). It’s certainly not a panacea. We need to be discouraging the WUI interface, not expanding it and I don’t see how this type of zoning does that unless it makes housing too expensive to build out.

    1. The answer is to force towns to build up in the center of town next to the train station and the businesses – if there are apartments and condos above the businesses in the center of town it is easier to create a fire safety zone because that can be parks and playing fields golf courses and riding arenas or hayfields and grazing land for livestock depending on the towns preferences

  2. Too bad the county commissioners on the front range counties of Colorado can’t manage to connect the same dots as Deschutes County, OR. We are making the same high density development mistakes in the Colorado front range WUI areas that caused California’s problems.

    We even had the same lessons pointed out by the NIST Waldo Canyon fire report that identified that the majority of structure losses were due to house to house spread.

  3. I live in Bend OR and the cost of housing is already going crazy, as a wildland fire fighter going on 30 years now, I understand the fire side and WUI side of this, but the flip side is what it will do to the cost of living. It’s already beyond what I can afford now. And presently I’m furloughed. I have been looking at job opportunities in other places, trust me.

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