By DENA ALI
Although the best way to protect lives and property from active wildfires is fire suppression, emphasizing suppression has, in fact, exacerbated the wildland urban interface (WUI) fire problem faced by many North American communities. Focus must move away from suppression and toward prevention through fuel reduction and homesite mitigation. One of the most popular mitigation options in the face of increasingly large, more intense, and more frequent wildfires is the reintroduction of fire as an ecological process. Policymakers must also recognize that as long as WUI growth continues unchecked, so will wildfire problems. Because demographic trends show no signs of slowing growth in the WUI, policymakers must find a way for humans and fire-adapted forests to coexist.
An Ecological Solution
In areas where tree density has created substantial increases in fuel, forest “thinning” and prescribed burning are the most effective means of reducing high fire risk. Decades of scientific analysis have determined that the single most important strategy involves removal of surface fuel by prescribed fire. This focuses on removing the surface fuels most responsible for burn severity and fire ignition such as litter, grass, and herbaceous fuels. Prescribed burning will not only reduce fuel but also provide ecological benefits such as increased biodiversity, nutrient cycling, and restoration of forest structure. Although this solution sounds realistic on paper, it is complicated because of a lack of resources; this includes the continued increase of people and homes in the WUI and the sheer size of our nation’s forestlands. Although several federal forest areas have been implementing fuel reduction, budget and staffing constrictions have restricted their ability to complete these tasks. Moreover, federal forest funding often gets redirected toward suppression efforts during wildfire occurrences. In recent years, these wildfire seasons have extended well beyond the summer, leaving little time in the offseason to focus on mitigation and prevention.
It is widely recognized that the increased WUI is directly related to increased occurrence of destructive escaped wildfires. Moreover, more homes equate to more opportunity for life and property loss in the face of wildfire. Simply stated, sole focus on wildland vegetation reduction without consideration for WUI home ignition susceptibility is ineffective. Furthermore, focus on home ignitability is the principal determining factor in private property losses to wildfire and is a strategy that homeowners can influence through mitigation actions. Private homeowners can take effective action through using fire-resistant building materials, clearing roofs and gutters, and reducing vegetation around the home. Unfortunately, a substantial amount of research has found that residents and professionals disagree on both subjective and objective aspects of risk, even with straightforward property attributes.
Because of this misunderstanding regarding risk, many homeowners refuse to take mitigation actions; one of today’s greatest challenges for policy makers is to determine what factors influence mitigation behaviors. It was found that residents underestimate the relative importance of factors like defensive space, structural materials, and roof types.
Recent research conducted in Oregon on homeowner risk perception found that there is no association between wildfire risk and mitigation behavior. However, it did find that advice from local government and fire awareness groups does have a positive influence on risk mitigation. This finding was consistent with previous work suggesting that expert sharing of fire-related material is positively associated with mitigation behaviors. This information should encourage policy makers to focus on reaching private homeowners, communities, and homeowner associations through a variety of public education efforts.
One of the most widely recognized and practicable solutions is the National Fire Protective Association’s Firewise USA® program (), which focuses on educating the public about risk mitigation. This program encourages homeowners, property planners, developers, community leaders, and firefighters to work together to develop local solutions to the problems caused by wildfire.
Because every community is unique, Firewise USA encourages the collaboration of all involved in the WUI to create solutions by considering each community’s individual characteristics during decision making. Furthermore, Firewise is managed under the direction of all state and federal agencies with knowledge, experience, or wildland responsibility. These agencies include but are not limited to the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Fire Administration. The primary goal of this program is to educate people on how to live with and adapt to wildfire. They accomplish this goal through an array of techniques including community workshops, public education, and an interactive Web site.
A significant component of Firewise USA is its focus on community and individual efforts to protect homes. To accomplish this, substantial effort is placed on creating defensible space around houses. These spaces are formed by modifying the area around a building and reducing fuel so that it reduces a wildfire’s intensity enough to prevent the fire from igniting the house.
Most homes ignite from firebrand ignitions, directly striking the home or firebrands, igniting surface fires adjacent to and then spreading to contact homes. This defensible space also prevents a house fire from igniting surrounding vegetation and leading to a wildfire. Research has demonstrated that a home’s characteristics in relation to its immediate surroundings principally determines its ignition potential during extreme wildfires. Evidence-based research has also found that the 200-foot perimeter around a home is the ignition zone that should be protected through fuel limitation. Firewise USA recommends reducing and eliminating ignition hazards in the zones near the house.
Federal Policy Issues
Historically, federal policy has focused solely on prevention, fuel reduction, public outreach, and fighting wildfires. Sadly, these efforts have not produced favorable outcomes; they cannot keep up with the housing growth in the WUI that continues to equate with increased fire risk.
One possible solution to this growth is to limit expansion by classifying areas of forest as “nondevelopable” to limit the number of isolated and scattered communities in the WUI. Recent research from France found that the greatest fire risk is associated with isolated and scattered housing, and this risk decreased with increased housing density. France implemented urban planning that focused on higher density housing and found that, despite a 30-percent growth in building numbers, WUI risk remained constant. One study in California found similar results. But, to date, this is the only research that has not found increased risk with increased growth. This demonstrates the effectiveness of limiting fire risk through proactive urban planning policies directed at reducing scattered housing.
Although state and federal agencies do not regulate development directly, they can allocate resources to areas experiencing rapid WUI growth and support local and regional planning efforts by providing important research data and information to help communities become fire adapted. This research can also help policy makers determine areas that should be classified as nondevelopable. Forest service fire managers have the expertise and experience to do what’s right. However, people with little experience or expertise second-guess expert decisions and fail to implement best practices. In terms of mitigating fire risk, the best defense is a good offense: The best way to protect the WUI is to restore surrounding forests to a healthy and resilient condition.
Research has also found that, although advice from local stakeholders has little, if any, influence on wildfire risk perceptions, advice from local government and fire awareness groups has a positive influence on whether homeowners undertake risk mitigation activities. This suggests that receiving fire-related information from “experts” is positively associated with structural and vegetation mitigation behaviors. All of this information should encourage policy makers to focus on research and information sharing. They should also consider limiting the continued spread of development into the WUI until federal fuel reduction prescribed burning can be completed. Finally, incentives should be provided to insurance companies that reduce rates for homeowners who implement risk mitigation activities.
In 2009, the Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement (FLAME) Act was passed, and many efforts are now underway within the context of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy (Cohesive Strategy). The Cohesive Strategy encourages shared goals from a national collaborative effort and focuses on three key areas: restoring and maintaining landscapes, fire-adapted communities, and response to fire.
Although the Cohesive Strategy outlines necessary solutions, it has not yet gained the approval of all stakeholders. According to North Carolina (NC) Forest Service Public Information Officer Brian Haines, cooperation starts at the local level with local and municipal governments. To gain the necessary momentum for the Cohesive Strategy to succeed, volunteer fire departments must receive necessary education and opportunities to share the message of mitigating forest fuels, creating defensible space, and using fire-resistant buildings. The volunteer fire service represents 70 percent of the fire service, but because it relies on volunteers, training resources and opportunities are more limited. We must ensure all fire agencies have consistent training and expert information to share with homeowners.
It is imperative that urban planners and policy makers clearly understand growth patterns in the WUI and how this growth is directly associated with increased fire risk and destruction. Because 94 percent of our nation’s wildlands are fire dependent, planners must create communities that are fire adapted. Until we can restore health to our federal forests and researchers can determine precisely where fire risk is greatest, we must limit WUI expansion. It is difficult to regulate private property, but we can classify high-risk wildlands as nondevelopable until risk can be mitigated. The only way to reduce wildfire danger is to minimize WUI growth and allow planners to influence where homes are developed in the future.
Land use policy should include lessons learned to limit sprawl while increasing housing density in developed WUI. It is well recognized that housing density can be too high, and houses must remain spaced far enough apart to prevent one house from igniting the next. However, the continued movement into undeveloped forests must be limited until these forests can be restored to health. This means development should not occur in areas where very dense continuous vegetation exists. The focus of planners and policy makers should instead be on increasing resilience in developed WUI communities.
Prescribed burning can transform the boundaries of these communities into fire breaks. We must concentrate on creating a defensible space between the entire community and forest land. With increased density, planners must focus on road infrastructure to ensure residents can evacuate, if needed. While environmentalists and federal forest managers work to reintroduce fire to fire-adapted forests, communities can focus on reducing ignitable areas around homes and public education programs. Insurance companies should reduce rates for homeowners who reduce risk on their property. This can all be accomplished by ensuring the Cohesive Strategy gains necessary momentum among all WUI communities.
Finally, the forest service budget for prevention, community education, and mitigation must increase. Allowing the forest service to divert its efforts from reactive to proactive will help communities become fire adapted and thus not only reduce the probability of fire spread but also reduce negligent and deliberate ignitions. The goal will be to help communities develop bottom-up initiatives in terms of prevention, preparedness, and suppression. By substituting fire suppression with a more holistic coexistence with fire, collaboratively, communities can reduce their risk of disaster.
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DENA ALI is a captain with the Raleigh (NC) Fire Department. She previously served as a police officer for five years. Ali has a degree from North Carolina State University and an MPA from the University of North Carolina—Pembroke, where her research focused on firefighter suicide. She taught her class on suicide prevention at FDIC International 2018. Ali is also a founding member of the Carolina Brotherhood.