USA When a wildfire is rolling toward a house built with a cedar shake roof, surrounded by decorative juniper up to the windowsills, and the only access road is overgrown and narrow, firefighters will likely skip it.
People think that were going to save their house, said Paul Tester, Southwest Washingtons fire training coordinator at the state Department of Natural Resources. Were there to protect the firefighter and the public, thats our first priority.
We can rebuild a home, the trees will grow back. I cant rebuild you.
As more people build homes in spots where civilization mingles with the wild, firefighters may have to make those calls more often. In Southwest Washingtons now-regrown Yacolt Burn area, where one of the states largest wildfires tore through the region more than 100 years ago, people have built an estimated 800 homes, according to local assessors offices.
Researchers with the University of Wisconsin and U.S. Forest Service have found that about a third of all homes in the continental United States sit in whats called the wildland-urban interface a higher-risk fire area where homes and wild lands mix. Those homes housed an estimated 99 million people nationwide, the researchers said.
The wildland-urban interface area constitutes about 10 percent of the Lower 48. The number of homes in the risk area increased by about 8.5 million, or 24 percent, from 1990 to 2010. Since then, that number has likely increased, according to researchers and fire managers.
Wildfires destroyed almost 5,000 structures nationally in 2015, including more than 2,600 homes, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
In Washington in 2010, 8.3 percent of the state was part of an interface zone, accounting for 36 percent of all homes. Last year, wildfires destroyed 343 houses in Washington, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. In Southwest Washington last year, 152 fires left 11 homes destroyed or damaged, and two of those homes were in Clark County, according to the DNR.
In Okanogan County, the site of the two largest fires in state history the Okanogan Complex of 2015 and the Carlton Complex of 2014 the number of homes in the interface grew by 34 percent from 1990 to 2010. Seventy-one percent of homes in Okanogan County were in the interface area in 2010, the researchers found. The two fires killed three firefighters and damaged or destroyed about 470 homes.
Susan Stewart, a staff scientist at the University of Wisconsin who studies the wildland-urban interface, said the analysis isnt without caveats.
It uses satellite imagery to determine building and vegetation density, but its not purely a measure of fire risk. On its own, the map doesnt take into account the environment and climate of each region. Also, the analysis was done based on 10-year U.S. Census data, and a lot can change between decades when it comes to building and plant growth.
But understanding the wildland-urban interface can help researchers know where fire risk is greatest, she said, because humans cause 80 to 90 percent of Americas wildfires.
I think of Smokey (Bear), and Smokeys got that match and Smokey tells you to be careful with your matches and be careful with your campfires, Stewart said. We have more houses out in these areas, people out in the wild lands, doing more things than camping.
Its people who live near the forest, she said: smokers; vehicles dragging chains on a road, causing sparks; homeowners burning something in the backyard.
Thats really the paradox here, she said. People want to live close to nature. Its just that where nature has a habit of burning, living close to nature is not always a simple thing.
Con McClure was clearing some brush around his house Thursday afternoon. He lives with his wife in the Dole Valley area, not far from the Yacolt Burn State Forest and the old fires footprint.
Its all pretty much new growth here. Youll see an old snag every once in a while, he said. Whats left of the burn.
It would be challenging to get firefighters or water out there should a serious fire start, he said, but hes done some broad planning for what he might do.
I thought about it last year, when it was really dry. I gave it some heavy thought then, he said.
There are more ways in and out of the area than there used to be, he said, which is encouraging, as is all the logging; theres likely a lot less mass to burn near his house than there was in 1902.
That was all heavy, heavy timber, but theyve logged it hard. I can tell it just by the wind, he said. When I first moved here, to this location, there was no wind at all. Now Im getting wind pretty much every day.
Still, he said, its hard to miss the effects of growth.
There might have been one house on the road per mile years ago, he said, but not anymore. There are more people coming to the area for recreation, too, which means more reckless campfires, smoking and garbage.
Thats the sad part of it all, he said. Beautiful area up here. Theyre kind of destroying their own place.
Tester, with the DNR, estimated that state firefighters spend 80 percent of their firefighting time working to keep flames away from homes.
The tactics and equipment for fighting a wildfire simply wont help a burning house, Tester said. The propane tanks, paint cans or ammunition that might be on fire inside, along with the high emotions from homeowners, add to the danger.
Theres times when theres nothing we can do with a running fire, he said. We will pull everybody back to a staging area or a safety zone and stage there, because theres nothing we can do. Theres literally nothing anybody can do.
About 19,000 homes in Clark County, or 11 percent of the total, were in the interface in 2010, the research shows. Even with the countys growth, that amount is down 23 percent from 1990. Clark Countys own definition of the interface which includes criteria for slope, vegetation and elevation places 5,400 homes in the higher-fire-risk area.
What had for decades been the largest fire in state history, the roughly 350-square-mile Yacolt Burn, which ripped through multiple Southwest Washington counties in 1902, burned in the same area where local fire managers worry about the mix of wildfires and homes today.
For all of us who live in the footprint of the Yacolt Burn, its something we do have to think about, said Gordon Brooks, a battalion chief with Clark County Fire District 10, which includes many rural homes. People have been living out in what we call the interface now forever. Its just a way of life for rural fire responders in our area.
In Skamania County, where most of the historic Yacolt fire burned, 94 percent of homes about 5,000 of them were in the interface in 2010. That was an increase of more than two-thirds over 20 years.
Southwest Washington has been lucky, Tester said. When the regions thick, green woods dry out, the weather gets hot and the wind picks up, huge fires are possible in Western Washington forests.
Theres been a lot of progress, locally, toward making the area more fire-ready, the firefighters said. The local firefighting agencies complement each other; structure firefighters at local districts are trained to fight wildfires and they do rotations on state mobilizations to larger fires for experience. County officials make use of burn bans in the dry months.
Still, Brooks and Tester both said theyd like to see more communities actively consider planning around fire when zoning and building, and homeowners do more to make sure their homes can weather a passing fire. Small steps such as keeping gutters clean, lawns mowed or shrubs cut back from homes can go a long way, Tester said.
People get complacent because of the rarity of that happening over here, Tester said. I think the last couple of summers, it could have been a possibility, because of the drought weve had.
Some of the strengths of the Forest Services interface map are its breadth and depth, Stewart said. The researchers released the first part of their work at the end of last fire season, adding information on changes over time this year, and it has garnered a lot of interest among foresters and scientists, Stewart said. The mapping, she said, could help researchers better understand the impact of invasive plants, yard watering, pets or other human activity on the surrounding land.
State foresters and fire managers are all interested in the urban interface, Stewart said, adding that a better understanding of where that volatile mix of homes and forest lies helps with planning.
Fighting wildfires cost more than $2.1 billion last year, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. In a one-week period in late August, the Forest Service said it spent an agency-record $243 million. That year, 52 percent of its budget went to firefighting, up from 16 percent in 1995.
It has become more important as the fire problem has only gotten worse, in terms of more houses lost and more big fires, Stewart said. Policy leaders are looking for ways to convince the Congress, basically, that they need more support for managing wildfire.