Fire chiefs worry for homes near wildland

Fire chiefs worry for homes near wildland

02 April 2012

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USA — More people are moving into areas abutting wooded and brushy terrain of the wild, putting more lives and property at risk of wildfire in a situation made more dangerous by a warming climate.

Such was a central message issued to a convention of fire chiefs in Reno last week to discuss issues associated with fire danger in the so-called wildland-urban interface. The five-day conference occurred in a community where nearly 60 homes were destroyed by a pair of dangerous wintertime blazes within a two-month period and at a time a deadly wildfire was burning on the outskirts of Denver.

Expect more of the same in the years ahead, experts told the chiefs during a discussion of wildfire conditions of the future.

“We have a very dangerous situation on our hands,” said Arthur “Butch” Blazer, former state forester for New Mexico and currently deputy undersecretary for natural resources and the environment for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Decades of suppressing fire have resulted in overgrown forests ready to burn, while a warming climate is making for longer, larger and more intense fire seasons, attendees of the conference hosted by the International Association of Fire Chiefs were told.

Complicating that hazardous combination is the growing number of people moving into the urban-wildland boundary where the risk of damaging wildfire is greatest, said Faith Ann Heinsch, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service based at a fire sciences laboratory in Montana.

More than 9 percent of homes nationwide are now located within the wildland-urban interface, with the number rising to 50 percent in 19 states, Heinsch said.

“There is continued migration into the wildland-urban interface and the wildland-urban interface will continue to grow,” Heinsch said. “The housing densities are dramatically increasing.”

It poses a serious challenge to fire agencies dealing with increasing fire danger and diminishing budgets, officials said.

The danger was made abundantly clear in Reno recently. On Nov. 18, a power line arcing in high wind ignited a fire in an urban interface area near Caughlin Ranch. The blaze blasted through neighborhoods in southwest Reno, destroying 26 homes and causing $7.6 million in damage. One man died of a heart attack during the blaze.

On Jan 19, improperly disposed fire ashes started another fire on another windy day in northern Washoe Valley. That blaze rocketed north into Pleasant Valley, destroying 29 homes. An elderly woman died of smoke inhalation during the fire.

Last week, a new fire started in a wildland-urban boundary on the outskirts of Denver. At least 25 homes were destroyed and at least two deaths resulted from that fire.

“Many projections indicate increasing burned areas,” Heinsch said. “We’re going to see these events that we think are very rare happening more and more.”

The danger in interface areas has been cited by Northern Nevada fire officials for years, with an emphasis placed on reducing the hazard in those areas in particular, said Washoe County’s fire services coordinator Kurt Ladipow, who helped organize the conference.

The county’s communities seen at greatest risk of fire include the north Lake Tahoe area, Galena Forest, Verdi, Red Rock-Rancho Haven and parts of Washoe Valley.

Efforts to convert endangered neighborhoods into “fire-resistant communities” by clearing vegetation and employing proper building materials will prove key to reducing danger in the future, Ladipow said.

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