By BRIAN R. HAINES
For many people, it’s difficult to understand what the wildland urban interface (WUI) is or if their homes and communities fall within it. Many people don’t realize that the area where they chose to build their home puts them in danger, let alone what measures they can take to mitigate those dangers. Homes considered to be in the WUI are in or near a natural area—such as a forest or grassland—and that potentially a wildfire could burn right through them.
There are an estimated 4.5-plus million homes at substantial risk of wildfire across the nation. Statistics from the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) show that in 2016, 65,575 wildfires burned around 5.4 million acres across the United States. That number jumped to 71,499 wildfires in 2017, burning about 10 million acres. In mid-October 2017, wildfires burned 245,000 acres in Northern California, resulting in 23 fatalities and destroying more than 8,700 structures. This was followed by thousands of structures being lost and costing billions of dollars in damage in Southern California in December 2017. The loss of homes and lives is not endemic to California alone; it’s a nationwide issue. According to the NIFC, 3,192 homes were lost to wildfire across the country in 2016. That number more than doubled in 2017, with 8,057 homes destroyed.
Nicole Mahrt Ganley, senior director of public affairs for the Western Region Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, said: “In California, insurers paid approximately $12 billion in wildfire related claims in 2017. There is a substantial risk for wildfire in several states across the U.S. To meet future obligations to policyholders, insurers must appropriately rate for the risk. In general, homes constructed in the WUI do face a greater risk of wildfire loss as compared to homes built elsewhere. As a result of this increased risk, homeowners residing in a WUI may pay more for homeowner’s insurance. However, many companies offer discounts to homeowners who take steps to mitigate their risk of fire loss.”
Although California has more homes in the WUI than any other state, a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service report, Wildfire, Wildlands, and People: Understanding and Preparing for Wildfire in the Wildland-Urban Interface, showed the state is not alone in facing this burden. Statistically speaking, the report claimed: “Some 32 percent of U.S. housing units and one-tenth of all land with housing are situated in the wildland urban interface.” That is a lot of homes, and the number is expected to increase. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates the population of the United States continues to grow; it crossed the 327-million threshold in May 2018. A study by the USDA Forest Service, the 2010 wildland-urban interface of the conterminous United States, also found that, from 1990 to 2010, there was a 41-percent increase in homes located in the WUI, increasing from 30 million to more than 43 million.
The National Wildfire Coordinating Group devotes a section of its Incident Response Pocket Guide for wildland firefighters that outlines the challenges of fighting a wildfire in the WUI. Firefighters use this guide to make important tactical decisions based on information ranging from transportation concerns (poor roads and bridge load limits) to how the material is used in construction, weather and fire behavior concerns, topography, infrastructure (power lines and propane tanks), water supplies, natural fuels within 30 feet of a structure, and property owners who may refuse to leave or who panic when the fire approaches. People can address many of these concerns prior to a wildfire if fire departments, communities, and local governments work together.
National programs, such as the International Associations of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Ready Set Go! program, provide guidance on reducing risk. Ready Set Go! aims to help fire service members promote collaborative efforts and inform those living in the WUI on how to mitigate hazards around their homes by maintaining situational awareness when a wildfire threatens and acting early to ensure they can safely evacuate, if needed. Being “ready” means residents must put in the work before a wildfire by creating defensible space around their homes and communities. This includes clearing away brush and using fire-resistant landscaping and materials when building or renovating a home. It’s also about having emergency supplies and a practiced plan of escape in place.
The National Fire Protection Association Firewise USA program also better prepares communities in the WUI. This program recognizes more than 1,500 communities across the nation and provides a step-by-step process for developing a plan of action to reduce risks. To become a recognized Firewise USA site, you need a written wildfire risk assessment, which can be obtained through a state forestry agency or fire department; a template of this assessment is provided at the Firewise USA Web site. A Firewise USA board or committee must be established to work through the process of developing the multiyear action plan and risk reduction priorities. The board should be comprised of residents, local fire departments, state forestry agency personnel, elected officials, the emergency manager, or anyone else with a stake in protecting the community. The site should provide an annual wildfire risk reduction educational outreach event. The Firewise USA Web site also provides suggestions for applicable events and additional requirements.
It is important to have a plan to mitigate hazards around individual homes and communities because many fire departments don’t have the adequate resources to protect every home during a wildfire, especially in areas where access is limited. To help with mitigation, the Firewise USA program provides a checklist on its Web site that includes simple ideas such as clearing leaves and other debris from gutters and eaves and underneath porches and decks as well as removing dead vegetation and other flammable material within 30 feet of the house and other structures. There is also a host of other landscaping and construction tips that will help reduce an individual structure’s threat from a wildfire.
Community collaboration can be more than just the Firewise USA program. Community members can also develop a Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) that provides communities with a written plan that identifies wildfire hazards and the means for mitigating them. The project comes out of Title 1 of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, passed by Congress in 2003, with the objective to, in part, “reduce the risks of damage to communities, municipal water supplies, and federal lands from catastrophic wildfire.” Ultimately, the plan requires collaboration between local community and municipality resources, state and federal agencies, and other stakeholders to prioritize action that addresses local conditions and protects values at risk should a wildfire occur. Other requirements for a CWPP include prioritizing fuel reduction on federal and nonfederal land.
Landowners within a 10-mile radius of a national forest can apply for funding through the Community Protection Program (CPP), which provides grants to help mitigate the cost of fuel reduction projects. Communities interested in getting a CWPP and landowners interested in applying for CPP funding should contact their state forest agency for more advice. Fire managers can also consult the IAFC’s A Fire Service Leader’s Guide To Preparing a Wildfire Community Protection Plan at www.wildlandfirersg.org/Portals/18/Resources/Resources/CWPP%20Leader’s%20Guide%20Normal%20Res.pdf.
Ultimately, programs and resources are available to help mitigate the dangers of wildfire facing communities in the WUI. It all begins with motivated residents, emergency response personnel, local government, and other stakeholders working together to plan and reduce their risk.
BRIAN R. HAINES has been a public information officer (PIO) for the North Carolina (NC) Forest Service since 2007, where he has also worked as a nationally qualified Type 2 PIO on many large wildfires in NC and across the nation and is working toward becoming a Type 1 PIO. He co-chairs the communications committee on the NC Prescribed Fire Council. As part of a cadre of instructors, Haines has helped teach the National Wildfire Coordinating Group S203, Introduction to Incident Information, and M410, Facilitative Instructor, courses.