During the 2006 Esperanza Fire in Southern California
, five Forest Service firefighters died trying to protect an isolated, unoccupied home. The home was positioned at the top of a series of steep gullies surrounded by dense, highly flammable chaparral vegetation -- normally the type of place firefighters would avoid for a direct fight of a wildfire.
But the Esperanza Fire occurred in what firefighters term the "wildland-urban interface" or "Red Zone" -- the area of transition between developed urban areas and undeveloped wildlands. In this case, the fire was pushed by strong Santa Ana winds out of the chaparral and into a housing development. This has become an all too common occurrence as the wildlands shrink and the suburbs and exurbs steadily grow.
Wildland firefighters are entering the Red Zone more and more often as waves of subdivisions and McMansions have lapped at the edges of our national forests and public lands over the last two decades. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that 8.4 million new homes were added to the WUI across the country in the 1990s, and this rate of growth is being sustained.
In the Red Zone, the normal command system that governs wildland firefighters "goes into the toilet. There is no organized lookout, aerial surveillance, or communications," says Jack Cohen, a former Hotshot firefighter and current researcher with the Rocky Mountain Research Station. "Escape routes go away -- with the smoke it becomes difficult to tell whether roads lead to safety zones."
This tremendous expansion has not only made wildfires more dangerous, it has made them more expensive. A recent audit by the General Accounting Office detailed the tremendous increase in the costs of fighting wildfires (hitting $1.9 billion in 2006 and $1.37 billion in 2007) and wildland fire managers place most of the blame for the rising costs on fighting more fires in the expanding WUI. Analysts have pegged the costs of protecting homes as high as 50 to 90 percent of the total of all wildland fire management costs.
As bad as the WUI problem has become for wildland fire managers, a new study published by the Montana-based, independent non-profit research organization, Headwater Economics, shows that it could become much worse. Headwater Economics researcher, Patty Gude and her colleagues, found that only 14 percent of the available WUI in western states is currently developed, leaving 86 percent available for new construction.
The researchers worked to identify the extent of residential development adjacent to publicly-owned forest lands in the West using census data and maps from the Protected Area Database as well as the National Land Cover Dataset.
Gude says that the results even surprised the research team. “We expected to see something different in terms of how much is developed. We thought the extent would be much greater, but it is actually only a small proportion of what it could be. That means the potential exists for the problem to be much worse. If protecting homes from fire is expensive now, the cost when more land is developed may swamp the firefighting agency’s budgets entirely.”
Where is the WUI?
While wildland-urban interface fires in California have certainly gotten the most attention, the problem is not isolated to the west coast state.
The study found that California and Oregon account for almost half of the wildland-urban interface in the West, mainly as a reflection of the amount of forested land in both states, but that other states have actually developed a larger percentage of their wildland–urban interface. So, whereas, only 17 percent of the potential WUI has been developed in California and 10 percent of those lands in Oregon; Washington and Colorado have already developed 21 percent of their potential WUI.
Gude says that the real problem is the dispersed housing patterns seen within much of the WUI as a result of a preference for large lots. “In Montana, we have seen a huge increase in development on large lot sizes—20 to 40 acres. So, while the state’s population grew 50 percent between 1970 and 2006, land conversion increased by 200 percent.” She says that anecdotally that trend towards large lot sizes in the WUI is being seen in other western states as well.
The construction of seasonal or second homes is also fueling the interface expansion. In Wyoming, 44 percent of all interface homes are not the owners’ primary residence, and 38% of all interface homes in Colorado are second homes.
Costs for fighting wildland fires has skyrocketed over the past decade, and most analysts blame the difficulty of protecting home and fighting fires in the interface for much of the increase. Gude’s study provides a warning that the costs could become much worse. The group estimates that if residential development expands to cover 50 percent of the private forest land adjacent to public lands, firefighting costs could climb to $2.3 to $4.3 billion per year (up from a 2000-2005 average of $1.3 billion/year). Coming in the aftermath of the $700 billion financial bailout bill, that may not sound like much, but as a point of comparison the entire budget for the US Forest Service is around $4.5 billion per year.
As a researcher, Gude says that Headwater Economics is not in the business of making policy recommendations and says that their most important contribution was to show the potential magnitude of the problem in the future. However, Gude has noticed more requests from legislators for information on wildland fire costs. She says that in Montana the state legislature is looking at a number of different strategies for reducing costs, and possibly controlling growth in high fire risk areas.
“I think you are going to see more deliberation over how to shift costs from US taxpayers as a whole to insurance companies and to counties that allow development in high risk areas—even onto individual homeowners,” says Gude.
Indeed, State and local politicians in other parts of the West are also beginning to address the need for growth restrictions and building codes related to fire vulnerability. And, perhaps most importantly, insurance companies are filling a policy gap in some western states by forcing homeowners to address wildfire risk on their property. Over the last few years, State Farm inspected 42,000 properties across the West in high-risk areas for wildfires. Of those, the company required some sort of mitigation action on 33 percent of the properties -- usually as simple as clearing vegetation from roofs and gutters and away from the house.
"Insurance companies are saying it is a shared risk," says Carole Walker, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association, "Homeowners have to take scientifically proven steps to reduce fire risk or look for insurance elsewhere."
Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano has been considering a number of ideas developed by fire researchers at the University of Arizona that outline changes in zoning and insurance in what they are terming the "fire plains." Former National Park Service Director Roger Kennedy has developed the idea of a National Flame Zone Atlas, which would be similar to national floodplain mapping efforts. Kennedy has also proposed ending federally subsidized mortgages within the "flame zones."
The Headwater Economics study should be viewed as a glass half full result. Residential development growth in the interface has created a real problem, but it could be a lot worse. For those in land and wildland fire management, the study should be seen as a call to action—address growth and home vulnerability or see even more expensive and dangerous fire seasons in the years ahead.