Editor’s Note: The following is the first of three in a series of articles by Colorado State University’s Karissa Courtney covering important forest topics facing the United States. Part I (below) delves into the intricacies of the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) and looks at some recent very large fires in the West. Stay tuned for Part 2 which argues that Smokey the Bear has worked “too well” with recent forest fires increasing in intensity and severity and Part 3 which focuses on tree planting and thinning and how government agencies get projects like this done thanks to the National Environmental Policy Act…
A lot of people love the idea of having a cabin in the woods – sunlight peeping through the leaves, deer munching on plants nearby, a gurgling stream flowing past the window. Perhaps the house is the only one for miles, with a beautiful forest in every direction. There often is a glorified idea of what it means to live in the woods. You are away from other people, maybe living more off the land, or becoming “one with nature.” While this idea sounds lovely and serene, there are unfortunately consequences to choosing to reside in an area like this that many people don’t consider.
There is a term for this kind of area, Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) (pronounced “woo-ee”), and it’s rapidly expanding in the United States and around the world (Radeloff et al. 2018). There are two ways in which the WUI is growing, 1) the construction of new homes in or around wildlands, or 2) an increase in wildlands within or near already developed areas (Radeloff et al. 2018). From 1990 to 2010, there was an increase in houses in the WUI by 12.7 million, with 25 million more people (Radeloff et al. 2018; Figure 1a). WUI areas take up less than one tenth of the land area in the contiguous U.S., but 43% of all new houses between 1990 and 2010 were built there (Radeloff et al. 2018).
This wouldn’t matter so much if wildfires weren’t natural occurrences in forested areas, but they are. This has led to increased risk of private property, built infrastructure, and ignition sources during wildfires (Abrams et al. 2016; Figure 1b). In fact, 69% of buildings lost due to wildfire in the US are in the WUI (Kramer et al. 2019). Not only is the location of the homes a potential issue, but also what the homes are made of. Homes in the WUI are not required to be built with fire-resistant materials (Abrams et al. 2016). In this way, the United States is well behind other countries, like Australia, that have foregone the use of wood shingle roofs for the use of iron roofs (McCaffrey and Rhodes 2009). Additionally, Australia emphasizes that residents should take responsibility for thei own property and safety and has developed standards for homes in fire-prone areas, including using steel-framed construction (Baker et al. 2020).
Beyond federal buildings, the United States government does not have any regulations in place regarding land-use planning or building practices in areas of wildfire hazards (Kramer et al. 2019). Local governments and communities are thus responsible for adopting wildfire policies and planning (Kramer et al. 2019). This is where the Healthy Forests Restoration Act (HFRA) of 2003 comes in. It was created to improve management of insect infestations, protect at-risk communities, protect and restore biological diversity, and fund grants (US Congress 2003). In response to the HFRA, many communities have developed and revised Community Wildfire Protection Plans (Absher et al. 2018; Jakes et al. 2011). The HFRA requires that these Plans be developed collaboratively (with homeowners and land managers in the area that the plan is being designed for), that they identify and prioritize fuels reduction and treatments of hazardous fuels, and that they recommend reductions to “structural ignitability” (Jakes et al. 2011). Community Wildfire Protection Plans can be developed for any size of community – small settlements, rural towns, cities, or counties (Absher et al. 2018) but it’s unclear so far if they have led to lower wildfire risk (Jakes et al. 2011).
Developing these plans will continue to be incredibly important as wildfires continue to be a threat to these communities. If you lived in Colorado, California, or Oregon during the summer of 2020, you saw the devastating effects of wildfires in WUI towns. A major destination town, Detroit, Oregon is often a stop between the western side of the state and the central Oregon towns of Bend and Redmond. Detroit is known for its man-made lake that is frequented in the summer by boaters, campers, and swimmers. The Lionshead Fire and Beachie Creek Fire converged on September 8th right near Detroit. Over 70% of the buildings in Detroit were destroyed according to officials. And this was just one of the many Oregon towns affected by fires this summer.
Colorado also faced its largest fires in its recent history with the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires burning 208,913 acres and 193,812 acres respectively (Table 1). The sets of fires from the two states were parallel in terms of their sizes, and how they converged (or almost did). Both states had many more than these fires, but these were the largest. As you can see from Table 1, the Oregon fires destroyed many more structures compared the Colorado fires. This is likely because many of the structures in the WUI in Oregon are closely surrounded by dense forest. Unlike Colorado, the trees are quite large and close together, and there are a lot of structures in these forests that could potentially be burned.
Table 1: Details of the four fires discussed in Oregon and Colorado from 2020
|Fire||Area Burned (acres)||Number of Structures Lost||State|
Both Oregon and Colorado have many Community Wildfire Protection Plans for different areas, but after this summer, it was clear that the plans didn’t work, or the plans hadn’t been fully enacted yet. It’s also evident that more needs to be done in the WUI, such as ensuring homeowners understand what they are getting into when they move into the WUI, requiring fire-resistant materials, routine debris cleanup on and near homes, and just more knowledge in general surrounding this topic. Many people have been wondering why the fires were so bad in 2020, and it’s due to multiple reasons that will be explored in Part II.
Abatzoglou, J.T., Juang, C.S., Williams, A.P., Kolden, C.A, and Westerling, A.L. 2021. Increasing synchronous fire danger in forests of the western United States. Geophysical Research Letters 48(2): e2020GL091377.
Abrams, J., Nielsen-Pincus, M., Paveglio, T., and Moseley, C. 2016. Community wildfire protection planning in the American West: homogeneity within diversity? Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 59(3):557-572.
Absher, J.D., Vaske, J.J., and Peterson, C.L. 2018. Community Wildfire Protection Plans in Colorado. Journal of Forestry 116: 25-31.
Baker, G., Webb, A., and Whiting, P. 2020. Regulatory controls for buildings in wildfire-prone areas of Australia. Fire Technology 56: 1903-1935.
Jakes, P.J., Nelson, K.C., Enzler, S.A., Burns, S., Cheng, A.S., Sturtevant, V., Williams, D.R., Bujak, A., Brummel, R.F., Grayzeck-Souter, S., and Staychock, E. 2011. Community wildfire protection planning: is the Healthy Forests Restoration Act’s vagueness genius? International Journal of Wildland Fire 20: 350-363.
Kramer, H.A., Mockrin, M.H., Alexandre, P.A., and Radeloff, V.C. 2019. High wildfire damage in interface communities in California. International Journal of Wildland Fire 28: 641-650.
McCaffrey, S.M. and Rhodes, A. 2009. Public response to wildfire: is the Australian “stay and defend or leave early” approach an option for wildfire management in the United States? Journal of Forestry 107(1): 9-15.
Radeloff, V.C., Helmers, D.P., Kramer, H.A., Mockrin, M.H., Alexandre, P.M., Bar-Massada, A., Butsic, V., Hawbaker, T.J., Martinuzzi, S., Syphard, A.D., and Stewart, S.I. 2018. Rapid growth of the US wildland-urban interface raises wildfire risk. PNAS 115(13): 3314-3319.
Urness, Z. and Poehler, B. (2020, Sep. 14). Oregon Wildfires: Idyllic Detroit ‘looks ike a war zone’ after wildfires flatten lakeside town. Salem Statesman Journal. https://www.statesmanjournal.com/story/news/2020/09/14/oregon-wildfires-detroit-damage-lakeside-town-lionshed-beachie-creek-fire/5791420002/
U.S. Congress (2003). Healthy Forests Restoration Act. PL 108-148. Available at https://www.congress.gov/bill/108th-congress/house-bill/1904