USA – Wildfire has always been a natural feature of the U.S. landscape, especially in the West. But it has become clear in recent years that the combination of a changing climate and more people moving into the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) is putting more lives and communities at risk. In 2020, catastrophic wildfires have devastated communities and forests across Colorado and will threaten the foothills of the Front Range in the future.
While forests receive most of the attention when it comes to wildfires, protecting communities in the WUI is far more important for reducing the potential catastrophic effects of fire. This is especially true given the movement of people into wild areas over the past 30 years. As of 2010, nearly 98 million people lived in the WUI, a term for places where homes and businesses have been built in close proximity to forests and other natural areas. This interface is expanding faster than all other land uses — such as agriculture, urban areas, and unoccupied natural vegetation — in the country. Since 1990, 60 percent of new homes have been built in the WUI. This growth is driven by large-scale movement of people from cities to suburbs and rural areas, in part due to the high cost of urban housing and the impact of the coronavirus on housing demand. All told, the WUI now covers more than 190 million acres across the United States — an area larger than the state of Texas.
As the number of people living in the WUI has increased, the costs of fighting wildfires have risen dramatically. This is due in large part to the protection of private property. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Office of the Inspector General estimated that 50 percent to 90 percent of fire suppression costs were attributable to protecting properties rather than saving forests. Studies by Headwaters Economics have also found increases in suppression costs in areas that had higher home densities. The bottom line is that the United States spends billions of dollars every year trying to protect homes and communities — and that number will continue to rise as the climate changes, placing residents and firefighters at risk.
While living near the WUI does not necessarily put someone at risk of being threatened by wildfire, new research shows that it is a real threat for tens of millions of people. Approximately 30 million people live in census tracts across the country where wildfires are likely to occur, placing their homes and lives at risk.
When it comes to wildfires and homes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. There is a growing body of best practices that have been proven to protect homes and businesses — if the appropriate policies and resources are in place. These include thoughtful planning and smart building practices such as installing fire-resistant building materials and conducting property maintenance. They also include the use of prescribed fire — the burning of brush piles and small forest patches to reduce fuel in a controlled manner — and other land management tools in and around communities to reduce the likelihood that wildfires will reach buildings.
As the cost of fighting wildfires grows, the financial case for proactive community planning and preparedness is becoming clear. Studies suggest that every dollar spent on disaster preparedness can save $4 in disaster response and recovery costs. For wildfires, the cost-benefit ratio may be even higher. For example, here in Colorado, a few million dollars spent on fire breaks and prescribed fires over the course of a decade near the Wildernest area of Silverthorne protected 1,400 homes — almost $1 billion in property — when a wildfire burned rapidly through the neighborhood in 2018.
Responsibility for identifying and assessing potential wildfire hazards and mitigating the relative fire risk begins with the resident. You can mitigate risk by:
1. Creating a safe home environment by having fire extinguishers and smoke alarms.
2. Creating defensible space surrounding your home by cleaning gutters, pruning and mowing.
3. Reducing fuels throughout your property and adjacent properties by creating a defensible zone surrounding (and throughout) your home and property.
4. Creating safe and accessible entrances, exits, and evacuation routes.
These are all mitigation measures that you can control and implement to reduce risk. It’s also important to engage with neighbors to initiate and develop neighborhood plans to manage landscaping, plan for the evacuation of children and pets, and plan to assess risk and identify mitigation projects around homes and shared space. Fire does not respect boundaries.
Being proactive and identifying a hazard’s fire risk and then mitigating that risk will go a long way to reduce the impact wildfire can have on your home and property — and your community. Our homes are fuel — boxes of fuel containing items of fuel that will burn when ignited. Fire risk can be lessened when residents take measures to identify, assess and reduce hazards inside the home, within the surrounding property and throughout the neighborhood.
Column by Daniel Hatlestad
Daniel Hatlestad is the battalion chief for the Inter-Canyon Fire Protection District.