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Sunday, March 3, 2024
March 3, 2024

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Washington lawmakers hope to tweak new wildfire protection rules for homes

Critics say updated standards set to take effect in March would drive up housing costs and are based on a map that overstates fire risks in many areas.

The Columbian

Washington lawmakers are looking to quell some of the backlash over new wildfire-related building codes set to take effect in March, while also trying to keep homes on the edge between wooded and developed areas safe from the blazes.

The “wildland urban interface” – or WUI – codes require new construction and renovations to use certain fire-resistant materials and to limit trees and other vegetation around structures. They sparked criticism from builders, cities and environmentalists who say the rules will be expensive to follow and could result in excessive tree cutting.

Now, lawmakers are moving ahead with Senate Bill 6120, which would require the Department of Natural Resources to create a new wildfire risk map. The map update would likely narrow where the new rules apply. The bill would also ditch tree-clearing requirements in the code.

Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Lake Sutherland, the lead sponsor of the bill said it would make it a “much smoother process” for people to get up to speed on the new codes.

Van De Wege’s proposal, which passed out of the Senate State Government and Elections Committee on Tuesday, follows months of criticism over new building codes intended to protect homes against wildfire. The Legislature passed a law in 2018 directing the state Building Code Council to carry out the rewrite.

City officials and builders are among those who say the rules are confusing and would drive up the cost of housing with requirements for pricier building materials. But a top concern is that a map that determines which parts of the state will have to follow the codes covers too many areas.

The 2018 law called for the Department of Natural Resources to draw a map of Washington’s wildland urban interface. The final map required most of the state to follow at least some of the new code requirements. Critics say it overstates wildfire risks in some places.

Van De Wege said the department did not have a lot of direction from the Legislature for how to make their map and instead used complicated criteria.

“Using that map would impact housing affordability, prevent us from doing density and have some real impacts on the cost of building homes,” he told the Senate State Government and Elections committee.

Van De Wege’s proposal would require the department to complete a new statewide map that focuses on areas exposed to the greatest wildfire risks, looking at things like terrain, climate and vegetation.

At a public hearing on the bill last week, builders, counties and the Department of Natural Resources testified in favor, saying a new map would ensure that the codes protect homes most at risk.

“The map really wasn’t functional for implementing what the original bill had intended,” said Paul Jewell, with the Washington State Association of Counties.

Under the new proposal, local governments could also complete their own wildfire risk maps but they would have to use the same criteria as the state version.

Once the new state map is complete, areas considered high risk or very high risk will be required to follow the code approved by the Building Code Council.

The bill would also limit which codes already determined by the council will take effect.

Requirements for fire-resistant materials for roofing, exterior walls, decks and porches would move forward. Guidelines for driveways and turnarounds that are accessible to emergency vehicles would as well.

Rules for thinning trees and other plants to provide “defensible space” around homes would not go into effect under the bill. As it’s written now, the Building Code Council’s code update would set defensible space boundaries within 30 feet to 100 feet of a structure.

In these areas, property owners would be required to remove dead wood, tree litter and plants that can spread fire. And trees would have to be at least 10 feet from each other and any structures.

The tree requirements drew concerns from environmentalists who said the guidelines would lead to too many trees being cut down and from local jurisdictions who have taken steps to increase tree cover.

Under his proposal, Van De Wege said defensible space rules would be voluntary and incentive-based, which he said works best for homeowners.

If it passes the Legislature, the bill will go into effect as soon as Gov. Jay Inslee signs it, which would likely be before the code update takes effect on March 15.

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.