UM researcher says fire-mitigation work may be misplaced

UM researcher says fire-mitigation work may be misplaced

8 June 2009

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Only 11 percent of National Fire Plan wildfire-mitigation efforts in the last five years have occurred near people’s homes or offices, according to a new study by te University of Montana, the University of Colorado and Colorado State University.

Cara Nelson, a UM assistant professor of restoration ecology and a study co-author, said the findings are significant because they show that,as more Americans live in or near fire-prone forests and as more wildfires burn, most federally funded activities to reduce fuels and wildfire hazard have occurred far from the “wildland-urban interface” – the area targeted by federal wildfire policies.

The NFP is a long-term federal fuels reduction program aimed at reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire to communities. The research suggests a need for substantial changes in fire policy. For example, future fire-mitigation strategies should emphasize constructing and maintaining “firewise” homes, restricting the abundance and configuration of residential housing units near wildlands, and improving cooperation among private and public landowners – both in implementing fire-mitigation treatments and in paying for fire suppression.

The authors of the study mention that fuels treatments located far from the wildland-urban interface may play an important role in protecting timber resources, as well as rare or threatened species or ecosystems, from high-severity fire, but that their effectiveness in direct protection of human communities is questionable given that the potential for a home to burn is relatively independent of distant wildland fire behavior.

Nelson teamed with Tania Schoennagel, a CU research scientist and the study’s lead author, and other colleagues to examine 44,000 federally funded wildfire-mitigation projects in 11 Western states between 2004 and 2008.

Their team was the first to evaluate the NFP’s management activities across the West and to compare the location of fire-mitigation treatments to the wildland-urban interface and its nearby surroundings.

The team’s findings were published in the June 8 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Nelson and her colleagues said there are reasons for the small amount of area treated near the wildland-urban interface. The study found that 70 percent of the wildland-urban interface, plus a 2.5 kilometer community protection zone surrounding it, is privately owned, which limits the federal government’s ability to treat it.

Those data underscore the research team’s suggestion for a “significant shift in fire-policy emphasis from federal to private lands,” if protecting people and homes remains a primary goal.

For example, reducing ignitable fuels and structures within 30 meters (around 100 feet) of private homes has been shown to most effectively protect a home from burning.

Federal agencies treated more than 10 million fire-prone hectares (about 29 million acres) between 2001 and 2008at a substantial cost, with Congress allocating $2.7 billion for fuels treatments between 2001 and 2006.

The cost of fire suppression also is substantial, exceeding $1 billion per year recently – largely for protection of private property in the wildland-urban interface.

The risk of wildfire to people has increased for two primary reasons and is expected to continue rising.

One reason is the recent influx of people living in or near scenic wildlands. In the Western United States, the area of wildland-urban interface grew by 61 percent between 1970 and 2000. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of housing units in the wildland-urban interface rose by 68 percent.

The other reason is a recent increase in wildfires.

Nelson, Schoennagel and their colleagues cite research that shows the area of forest burned between 1987 and 2003 was six times greater than that which burned in the previous 16 years. That research also shows that this same time period was characterized by increased spring and summer temperatures, longer fire seasons and earlier snowmelt.

Between 2002 and 2006, wildfires claimed 10,000 U.S. homes. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, in four of the last five years wildfires have consumed more than 8 million acres annually, and the total area burned in each of those four years was greater than that of any year between 1960 and 2004.

Climate models predict rising temperatures and declining snowpack this century. Nelson said the combination of more people in the wildland-urban interface and hotter, drier weather could be incendiary.

Nelson and her colleagues’ paper cites research indicating that much of the wildland-urban interface in the West is in forests and shrublands subject to hard-to-control, high-severity fires, where fuels are abundant and fires are driven by severe weather events.

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