Press "Enter" to skip to content

Goodbye to the Wildland Urban Interface Code – For a While!

Environmental groups like Black Hills Audubon Society, Restoring Earth Connections and Whatcom Million Trees were overjoyed when on March 15, 2024, Governor Inslee signed into law ESB 6120, “concerning wildland urban interface”.

  • The new law requires property owners to use ignition-resistant materials and methods for new and existing residences if those residences are within high hazard areas for wildfire.

  • There are no requirements for defensible spaces. In other words, homeowners will NOT be required to cut down trees around their property.

ESB 6120 follows the findings of recent wildfire science that defensible space has made little or no difference in protecting homes in actual wildfires in Colorado, California, and Oregon. These researchers agree that the best protection for homes is using ignition-resistant materials and methods.

Demise of the 2021 WUI Code Amendments

As a result of ESB 6120 becoming law, the State Building Code Council (SBCC) voted to delete the 2021 WUI Code Amendments on March 15, the date that the code was to go into effect.

The now-defunct 2021 WUI Code Amendments used the defensible space requirements of the International Building Code, which is based on science from before 2000. The code’s defensible space requirements would have forced homeowners to eliminate most trees within 30, 50, or 100 feet of the house—depending on the slope of the land and proximity to any dense vegetation, from grass to forests.

Those defensible space requirements would have resulted in the removal of thousands of trees at a time when trees can reduce the severity of climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide. The tree removal would also have conflicted with at least seven environmental laws, such as those that protect critical areas and shorelines.

WA DNR’s map for the deleted 2021 WUI Code Amendments magnified the amount of the required tree removal. The map applied the code to 70% of Washington because it was based on population density and proximity to cities—not actual wildfire risk. For example, the map applied the WUI code to all residences in Western Washington except those within the cores of cities.

Effects of ESB 6120

The new law requires the Washington Department of Natural Resources to create two new maps, a wildfire risk map and a wildfire hazard map (there is no deadline). The requirements of ESB 6120 will apply only to residences within the two highest hazard areas.

The State Building Code Council (SBCC) can write new WUI codes for ESB 6120 only after the new WA DNR maps have been published.

This means that no WUI code will exist for at least a year or two at the state level. Local jurisdictions’ websites for builders about the 2021 WUI Code Amendments must be taken down, and references to that code must be removed from local tree ordinances.

Flexibility for Cities and Counties

In their Community Wildfire Plans many counties and cities across the state RECOMMEND removing trees around homes that are near forests. The difference was that the 2021 WUI Code Amendments would have REQUIRED cutting trees around homes and regardless of proximity to forests.

In addition to creating Community Wildfire Plans, local jurisdictions are always free to adopt, at any time, stricter WUI requirements than ESB 6120 as long as they use the International Building Code (IBC) as a model. In fact, in the last few years four counties in Eastern Washington have already adopted the WUI chapters of the IBC in their entirety, including defensible space requirements.

ESB 6120 provides other flexibility:

  • Local jurisdictions can create their own maps if they use the same methods as the new WA DNR hazard map.

  • Local jurisdictions may be able to opt not to enforce the WUI requirements for ignition-resistant materials for additions and external repairs to EXISTING homes within the two highest hazard areas.

Next Steps

Citizens will have to be vigilant in the next two years as WA DNR creates the new maps and the SBCC writes new codes for ESB 6120. After the new WUI codes are in effect, citizens should be prepared to give input to their cities and counties on decisions about exemption of existing housing from WUI requirements and creation of local WUI hazard maps.

ESB 6120 passed without a single dissenting vote in any state legislative committee or in the House or Senate. There were almost two hundred comments, including from 47 organizations, and the comments were 98% positive. Washington state departments—and groups representing environmentalists, builders, cities, and counties—all supported the bill.

In spite of this widespread consensus in support of ESB 6120, some members of the State Building Code Council (SBCC) believe that the legislature was mistaken in eliminating the 2021 WUI Code Amendments. The SBCC decided at their March 15 meeting that they will propose their own WUI law during the 2025 state legislative session.

So this summer environmental groups from around the state will continue to educate legislators about the findings of recent wildfire science. They will also enlist citizens to help push back against any new legislation that includes defensible spaces.

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Demonstratin' the Awesome Power of Poot('n) Propulsion - Front View…