Many of us in the wildland fire community have been frustrated by the absence of basic statistical information about the U.S. wildland fire problem, specifically the wildland/urban interface (WUI). Not pointing the finger of blame at any one group or organization, there are just no good statistics that help us describe and understand this growing crisis.
In a recent publication by the International Code Council (ICC) and the National Resource Conservation and Development Council (NRC&D) Wildfire Safe, Sound and Code Smart project, a new WUI fact sheet has helped document some interesting facts and figures that begin to help better understand the history and trends of this growing problem.
With well over two dozen complex definitions of what a WUI is, it has become hard to explain in simple terms. However, this fact sheet highlights the issue with a simple and straightforward definition of WUI: “being a geographic location where structures and flammable vegetation merge in a wildfire-prone environment.”
The document helps describe the geography of the problem, highlighting that the United States encompasses about 2.3 billion acres of land. Within these acres are 1 billion acres of government (federal, state and local) and privately owned wildlands (without structures). In addition to these 1 billion acres, there exists well over 220 million acres (twice the area of California) that have been designated by each state forester as at high-risk of WUI fire.
This is not a static figure. Increased development near wildlands is ever-accelerating the growth of WUI areas. According to the Natural Resource Conservation Service, since 1990, the United States has experienced an unprecedented conversion-growth rate of 3 acres per minute, 4,000 acres per day and close to 2 million acres per year of conversion from wildlands to WUI.
Research by Headwaters Economics of Bozeman, Mont., indicates that in the West, on average about 14% of the available WUI lands have been developed, and 86% remains available for development. For example, the state of Washington has 21% of its available WUI developed and 79% undeveloped. Montana has developed 9% of its WUI while 91% is undeveloped; Arizona weighs in with 17% of its WUI developed and 83% undeveloped. Nationally, these figures have not been verified, but projections are that about 30% of the WUI has been developed with 70% still available for future development.
As we take a closer look at the 220 million acres identified as WUI and look at the demographics from the U.S. Census, we see how this issue continues to be compounded. The fact sheet highlights this growing issue from the 1960s, when our population was 180 million, with only about 20 million people calling the WUI home. Today, our population has grown to more than 300 million people, with 120 million living in these fire-prone areas.
What census figures are telling us today is that of these 46 million homes, 25% are more than 10 years in age and 21% are less than 10 years old. Even in our sluggish economy, projections are that over 8 million new homes will be constructed in the next 10 years; with a bullish economy that figure triples. What is interesting is that of the 46 million homes in the WUI, only about 35% meet any type of building, fire or WUI code.
Such an array of facts and figures provides a good start to help pinpoint WUI issues. But we need more. We need solid statistics — historical data and research — to help all stakeholders involved to understand the complexities of WUI issues and step up to solve the challenges.