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Wildfire-Prone Areas Need to Learn to Live With Flames, Experts Say

Image: California wild fire

A full moon rises over the active flank of the Colbert Fire off San Gabriel Canyon Road in Azusa, Calif., on Jan. 16. Thousands of people were under mandatory evacuation orders overnight. Over 500 firefighters, air tankers, helicopters and bulldozers worked to contain the fire which grew to over 1,700 acres. STUART PALLEY / EPA file

Instead of reacting to wildfires by fighting them, communities need to learn to live with them, for their own good and the health of the ecosystems around them, according to scientists who reviewed practices in three fire-prone regions across the globe. Coexistence, they argue, is possible with stronger limits to development and by allowing many fires to burn as nature intended.

"If you're going to build, do so in a way that also lets fire do its job" of restoring landscapes, Max Moritz, lead author of the review published in this week's issue of the journal Nature, tells NBC News.

In a review provocatively titled "Learning to coexist with wildfire," the 11 researchers examined practices in the western U.S., Australia and Mediterranean countries.

California wildfire forces evacuations 0:18

"Few tackle the difficult land-use issue of where and how humans choose to build their communities," the researchers wrote. Instead, they say, existing land-use policies and the focus on fighting fires encourage development in naturally hazardous areas, amplifying economic and human losses over time.

In the U.S., California has taken the lead in dealing with wildfires but "there's more to be done," says Moritz, a fire research scientist at the University of California, Berkeley.

Over the last decade, the state has developed tougher building standards and even mapped "fire hazard severity zones," but it still doesn't plan for wildfires the way it does for earthquakes, for example by limiting development in some areas, Moritz says.

"We don’t try to ‘fight’ earthquakes –- we anticipate them in the way we plan communities, build buildings and prepare for emergencies," Moritz said in a statement issued with the review. "We don’t think that way about fire, but our review indicates that we should."

California has led the way by incorporating wildfire into hazard assessment, agrees Vivian Kahn, who worked in land-use planning both at the city and state level in California.

This year, she said, California enacted a law requiring that every city and county add to its land-use planning the threat of wildfires and specifying what issues need to be addressed on lands deemed "very high fire hazard".

California wildfires threaten hundreds of homes 1:06

Moritz acknowledges California is "ahead of the game" but says a further step should be to ban development on some land.

Outright bans are not an option, counters Kahn, because the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled government may not deprive a property owner of all economically beneficial use of land without paying for the loss. But California communities can, and do, set land-use restrictions that make development in such areas difficult, she said.

The only way to take land deemed hazardous completely off the development table, she says, is for local governments to buy it but "we're hampered by a shortage of funding."

For the researchers, the bigger objective is to get society to agree that wildfire is a hazard that requires setting stronger development limits.

Whether the rest of society is ready to rethink wildfires to that extent might be premature. In the U.S., the National Association of Home Builders said it had nothing to add to the discussion.

Insurers might have more in common with the researchers but even they are careful in their approach. "After a wildfire, hurricane or flood event, it is important for state and local officials to evaluate the land use policy in a geographic area impacted by a disaster," says Chris Hackett, an analyst with the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.

Study: Western wildfires threaten 1.2 million homes 2:28

"There may be some instances when a home has been rebuilt multiple times due to a natural disaster event," he said. "The question should be asked, is it a wise use of time and resources to rebuild in the same location?"

In their review, the researchers urged communities to start the mind shift –- especially with the prospect of more wildfires in a warming world.

"Viewing fire as a natural and inevitable hazard should be central to most solutions, so we can anticipate its important positive and negative effects on both human and natural systems," they concluded. "Given that combustion is one of the most basic and ongoing natural processes on Earth, we must continue to learn from our experiences to achieve a sustainable coexistence with wildfire."