Fact Sheet-Only 14% of Potential WUI Currently Developed
In June, 2003 the Aspen Fire burned through the village
, a mountain getaway in the Santa Cantalina Mountains above Tucson
. The fire destroyed over 300 homes and businesses. Reconstruction began almost immediately, but not before Pima County
moved to pass stricter building codes designed to make structures less vulnerable.
Summerhaven is one of a growing number of communities stepping up to address the reality of living within fire-prone ecosystems. As more and more people move into the wildland-urban interface (WUI), the need to address the problem has become more acute.
In the 1990s, 8.4 million homes, or 60% of new homes in the US were constructed in the WUI. While most of that growth occurred in the East, much of it occurred in the most fire-prone areas of the West. That has put development and growth on a collision course with wildfire. In fact, the Forest Service’s firefighting costs have risen to unprecedented heights in the last few years, accounting for 45% off the agency’s overall budget last year. That is up from 13% of the budget in 1991. Analysts say that a large proportion of the increase in costs is attributed to the elevated costs of fighting fires in the WUI.
Since 2000, the Forest Service budget has been steadily reduced. So as firefighting costs have risen, the agency has been forced to absorb the increases through a 35% reduction in other programs – wildlife habitat restoration, recreation, state and community assistance, prescribed fire, and managed natural fire – some of the very projects that could help restore forest health and reduce many of the factors that are creating the conditions for large, ‘catastrophic’ wildfires in the first place.
A number of recent developments suggest that change might be in the works, and that communities like Summerhaven will take the steps necessary to address wildfire risk. For firefighters and fire and land managers those changes can not occur fast enough.
Policy Changes Coming to the Flame Zone?
State and local politicians in parts of the West are beginning to address the need for growth restrictions and building codes related to fire vulnerability, but more strict enforcement is needed. Perhaps most importantly, insurance companies are filling a policy gap in some western states by forcing homeowners to address wildfire risk on their property.
California has begun facing up to the realities of living in a fire-prone landscape. The State has developed regulations based on a sliding scale of risk that require most rural homeowners to incorporate enhanced building standards and create defensible space around their homes. Going a step further, most southern California counties, still smoldering from recent fire disasters, have adopted fire risk mapping and planning requirements for new developments.
In other parts of the West, changes in WUI policy have not arrived as quickly.
Earlier this year, Montana State Senator Bob Hawks (D-Bozeman) introduced a bill that, in his words, “had teeth.” Senate Bill 51 would have required growth policies to consider wildland fire hazards and also given local governments authority to deny subdivisions based on fire risk. The bill passed, but only after it was stripped of its original, major provisions. It now simply provides incentives for counties to address growth in the interface by making some funds available to local fire departments from the Healthy Forest Restoration Act if counties address growth in the county’s fire plan. This bill certainly represents progress in addressing the interface problem, but there is still much farther to go.
Frustrated proponents of growth regulation in the WUI are looking to the insurance industry to fill a policy gap.
In 2003, State Farm introduced a wildfire hazard inspection program in Colorado. The program has since grown to include 12 western states, including Alaska. Vickie Hodges, a loss mitigation analyst for the company, says that State Farm has inspected about 42,000 properties. Of those, 33% required some sort of mitigation action – usually simple things like clearing vegetation from roofs and gutters, and 20% had major concerns – property access, creating defensible space for firefighters. So far, the non-renewals or cancellations directly related to wildfire risk and mitigation is less than 1%.
State Farm representative Chris Hudson said that the low rate of non-renewals and cancellations is a reflection of increased understanding of the problem. “The program has been positively received. Most of the actions we request are simple, and people appreciate doing things for their own safety, and also for the safety of firefighters.”
Sure, but it doesn’t hurt to have threat of premium hike or policy cancellation to really motivate homeowners.
According to Carole Walker, Executive Director of the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association, a large catastrophe could quickly drive rates up. “Insurance companies are saying it is a shared risk. Homeowners have to take scientifically proven steps to reduce risk or look for insurance elsewhere.”
Other companies are following State Farm’s lead. Allstate and USAA have both ramped up wildfire hazard inspections.
Bob Harmsen, an AllState customer, lives on 80 acres in the mountains to the west of Denver. He has been doing wildfire mitigation work on his property above and beyond that outlined by the insurance inspectors. Last year, he cleared grasses and trees from within 100 feet of the house, and hauled 40 trailer loads of dead slash from his property. He widened the entrance to the property, and is even considering building a 2000 gallon holding tank for water, since firefighters will not be able to pump water to his location.
Harmsen said there was some resistance to wildfire mitigation among his neighbors, but after the Hayman fire, they saw what a fire could do, and most have gotten on board.
“A lot of it is common sense. Anybody who lives in the mountains has to think about it,” Harmsen said. “But, people don’t want to be told what to do.”
Moving Beyond ‘the Stupid Zone’
“I think we need to get past calling the WUI the ‘stupid zone,’ says Jack Cohen, a Forest Service research scientist. “First off, it is insulting and condescending, and ultimately it distracts us from the real problem – fire not occurring as an ecological process. We need to be more focused on returning fires to our ecosystems than on protecting structures.”
Cohen did an investigation of the structures that burned in Summerhaven during the Aspen Fire. His research has shown that many of the houses that burned in the Aspen Fire, and in other WUI fire disasters, could have been saved through simple actions to reduce fuels on and near the homes – a responsibility he feels lies with the property owner.
Surprisingly, Cohen is skeptical that regulations can change the situation. “We are not going to produce codes that say ‘Have your firewood off your deck by April 1, then June 1, then July 1, and so on.’ Codes like that do not work unless people already agree that they are important.”
He says that WUI fire disasters like Summerhaven will only be preventable when homeowners take responsibility for protecting their own structures.
“We have to let people know if they care about these structures then they have to do something themselves. There is not a lot that firefighters can do under the present conditions.”Cohen is right. The wildland fire community needs to get beyond simply criticizing residents of the WUI. They are not going away and there is not likely to be a slow-down in building in the WUI anytime soon. While education efforts have been underway for decades, it does seem like individual homeowners as well as State and local officials are finally beginning to wake up to the problem. Now is the time to ratchet up education efforts for homeowners, insurance companies, and State and local officials. With the right combination of voluntary incentives and regulations, there may be a window of opportunity to finally put a dent in the problem of fire in the interface.