As of late September 2023, 43,831 wildfires burned 2,386,207 acres in the United States according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Austin Burke ’24 is actively helping local governments and leaders avoid the devastating effects of future wildfire tragedies.
In co-operation with the Community Wildfire Planning Center and Sustainable Development Code, Burke researched and authored a Defensible Space Ordinance research brief which is designed to guide city planners and land use attorneys in adopting local ordinances to address vegetation management, hazardous brush, and landscaping regulations all of which help control wildfires and mitigate threats to lives, homes, and property.
“I've always been interested in policy, and I think this is an area that policy can really benefit the masses, especially when it comes to things that they can actually see. For example, someone might say there's a wildfire that ruined my home. I can see that. I can see it on the news. I can see people being affected by this,” Burke said. “The policy and the laws that are being passed by the local governments are really important to me because they're actually being seen by the public as a beneficial thing.”
Albany Law School Professor Jonathan Rosenbloom, Molly Mowery (Community Wildfire Planning Center), Bridget Nostro (Sustainable Development Code), Stephen Miller (University of Idaho), and Steven Hawks (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection) all helped edit the brief which was published as part of the Sustainable Development Code that Rosenbloom oversees.
In the brief, Burke analyzes the devastation wildfires can bring to communities – over $79.8 billion across the country from 2018-21 alone. He also focuses on psychological and physical health effects wildfires can have on a community, from smoke inhalation and poor air quality to shaking citizen mental health through devastation, grief, and significant loss. He then points to communities in Arizona, California, Colorado, and Washington that have taken steps to mitigate threats.
For just one example, Ouray County, Colorado requires, “no less than one hundred (100) feet of adequate defensible space in all directions around the building; construction requirements for decks and fences; ignition resistant eaves and roofs; windows must have certain features, including insulated glazing.”
“I decided to mostly focus on California because California is very susceptible to wildfire damage. The effects were very problematic. I think any way to prevent a wildfire from spreading would benefit the health of the people surrounding that area,” Burke said. “It was difficult at first because I don't have a science background. So, I was reading these lengthy studies and analyzing them. But many of the research skills I’ve used in my classes and other projects were helpful.”
The brief is just the latest educational step for Burke who attended the State University of New York at Plattsburgh for his undergraduate studies where he majored in political science. He became interested in policy early on and he knows a law degree will help his career.
“I chose law school very early on because I really wanted to go into policy. I didn’t necessarily want to be in a courtroom. The ability to be close to the government in Albany has been very beneficial,” he said. “I can work with different places in their public policy departments after law school, or something similar, and being at the heart of the State Capital has been very beneficial.”