FireSmart Communities in Alberta:
The Relevance of Land Use Planning and Development Regulations

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Photo: John Ulan

Recent disasters related to wildfires in Western North America have emphasized the need to use all available tools to protect communities located in fire-dependent landscapes. Since 1991, FireSmart Canada has encouraged communities located in the wilderness-urban interface (WUI) to become fire-adapted by taking various actions aimed at mitigation, preparedness, evacuation, and recovery.

A key but often overlooked FireSmart recommendation is for municipal governments to use land use planning and development regulations to mitigate exposure and risk. Protective actions include:

  • zoning to prohibit homes in high-risk areas,

  • legislating safer subdivision design and building setbacks,

  • zoning vulnerable populations (e.g., schools, retirement homes) away from higher risk areas,

  • requiring fire-resistant materials on public buildings and providing guidance for private buildings,

  • regulating flammable materials on properties; ensuring adequate evacuation routes,

  • limiting certain land uses (e.g., fire pits, burning yard waste).

Although research from Australia, France and the United States demonstrates the effectiveness of this approach, little research has been conducted on the links between wildfire risk mitigation and land use planning in the Canadian context. Lacking baseline data about the extent to which municipalities in Alberta are using land use planning policies and development regulations to reduce wildfire risk, University of Alberta postdoctoral researcher Elise Gatti (supervised by Professor Tara McGee) surveyed municipalities across Alberta in 2020.

The results of the survey (59% completion rate) indicated that municipalities in Alberta have not tapped into the full potential of land use planning and development regulations to mitigate wildfire risk. Fewer than one-third of Municipal Development Plans were found to have addressed wildfire as a hazard. Adoption of wildland-urban interface (WUI) model codes or standards for development-based wildfire risk mitigation was low among municipalities with a history of wildfire since 2000 or located within the Forest Protection Area. Measures that seek to avoid wildfire risk by controlling where development occurs in relation to identified hazards were the least adopted measures (<12% of municipalities)—perhaps because just one-third of municipalities had completed a Wildfire Hazard and Risk Assessment. The survey, which was conducted by municipal planning and development staff, also collected data from study participants about their perceptions and training. Study respondents viewed a range of barriers to the adoption of mitigation regulations, including community resistance to constraining development on private property, resistance from the development sector, and the lack of a clear provincial mandate. Study participants also reported feeling ill-equipped in terms of knowledge and resources to recommend measures. Twice as many study participants disagreed as agreed that they had received adequate training about planning for natural hazard mitigation, and three-quarters were interested in receiving additional training with respect to wildfire risk mitigation. 

This study aimed to provide baseline data about municipal actions to mitigate wildfire risk through land use planning and development regulations. The findings fill in several knowledge gaps in the Alberta context and suggest many opportunities for FireSmart, the Alberta Government, and the Alberta Professional Planning Institute to intervene. This research also highlights the need for more wildfire social science to better inform human adaptation to living with wildfire.

For more info on this project click here