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Wildfires today burn down more homes and kill more people than ever before. Land-use regulations would increase our chances of survival.

This September, builders, architects, fire marshals and land-use planners are gathering in Big Sky to learn about wildfire-resistant building materials and techniques and to hear firsthand from communities that are taking steps to become fire-adapted.

Speaking at the gathering will be one of the country’s leading experts in this field—Dr. Jack Cohen, a retired Forest Service wildfire researcher whose career focused on why homes burn. One takeaway from Dr. Cohen’s work is an often-repeated verdict: We don’t have a wildfire problem, we have a home ignition problem. In other words, wildfires by themselves are not problematic. They reduce fuels and play an important ecological role. We have a problem when people build homes in dangerous places.

Because more than a third of U.S. homes are on wildfire-prone landscapes, the challenge, according to Dr. Cohen, is to focus on the “home ignition zone.” This is the house itself, its construction materials, and the landscaping around the house.

Since the majority of homes that burn are ignited from flying embers and not direct flames, we need to focus on where the embers will land and what will catch fire. Will it be the cedar shake roof? Or the pine needles in the gutter? Maybe the wood pile stacked under the deck? Or will those flaming embers get sucked into the house through the attic vents?

Paying attention to these small details makes a huge difference. Post-fire aerial photos of neighborhoods show that some homes survive while others don’t. Clearly, some landowners are preparing for wildfire while others are not. Educational programs can teach people how to create defensible space around their homes and suggest using flame-retardant building materials. But voluntary landowner education, while important, is by itself not enough.

We also need regulations that direct where and how we build, with penalties for noncompliance. We’ve done this before. Since the great urban fires of the late 1800s we have – in our cities at least – passed building codes, applied zoning, and enforced regulations. Since then, as fire historian Stephen Pyne points out, there have been occasional fire outbreaks “akin more to a flu than an epidemic.” In urban areas we have solved the catastrophic fire problem.

Can we also solve this problem with homes near our forests and wildlands? We can. San Diego, California, requires a 100-foot defensible space around homes. Taos, New Mexico, prohibits development on steep slopes unless mitigation measures are met. Chelan County, Washington, passed a development code that requires wildfire-resistant building materials. And closer to home, Missoula County uses detailed wildfire hazard maps to evaluate new developments.

Passing and enforcing regulations that require fire-safe development does not have to be expensive. Headwaters Economics recently completed a study comparing the cost of building a traditional home to a home built with the latest wildfire-resistant materials and techniques. We found that, in Montana, the wildfire-resistant home was 2% cheaper to build.

In the book, “The Ostrich Paradox: Why We Underprepare for Disasters,” the authors point out that human beings are hardwired to not recognize and prepare for risk. We are inherently myopic and optimistic. The way to overcome these built-in biases, they state, is to pass and enforce building regulations. Fire-adapted communities throughout the country have come to the same conclusion. Regulations that focus on the home ignition zone save properties and protect homeowners and firefighters.

Ray Rasker, Ph.D., is executive director of Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics and co-founder of the Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire program.