Only 11% of National Fire Plan wildfire-mitigation efforts in the last five years have been performed near homes or offices, according to a new study by the University of Montana, the University of Colorado and Colorado State University, said Cara Nelson, assistant professor of restoration ecology at the University of Montana's College of Forestry and Conservation.
The National Fire Plan is a long-term federal fuels-reduction program aimed at reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire to communities. Nelson said the U.S. government is spending approximately $6 billion on fuel-reduction strategies annually. The study looked at where such treatments were conducted.
"In the West, there's been an expansion of the wildland-urban interface, and that's where people live and work," said Nelson, who co-authored the study. "There also has been an increase in wildfire activity, so together it's making people more vulnerable to wildfires, especially in the arid west."
The study examined 44,000 federally funded wildfire-mitigation projects in 11 Western states between 2004 and 2008. Researchers found that only 11 % of fuel-reduction activities took place within about 1.5 miles of the wildland-urban interface. Most of the treated land was more than 6.2 miles from this high-risk zone.
Nelson said there are reasons for the small amount of area treated near the wildland-urban interface. The study found that 70% of the wildland-urban interface, plus a 1.5-mile community protection zone surrounding it, is privately owned, which limits the federal government's ability to treat the high-risk area. She also noted the risk of wildfire to people has increased for two primary reasons and is expected to continue rising. One cause is the recent influx of people living in or near scenic wildlands. In the Western United States, the area of wildland-urban interface grew by 61% between 1970 and 2000. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of housing units in the wildland-urban interface rose by 68%.
"That zone is privately owned, so that problem for federal agencies tasked with protecting people in that interface area, so in our conclusion suggests we need a significant shift in our fire policies if the goal is to protect people and structures in the wildland-urban interface," Nelson said.
The real issue is the amount of people moving closer to the national forest boundaries and who are building homes in that wildland-urban interface, said Ralph Domanski, assistant director for fire operations in southern California for the U.S. Forest Service. When he first started as a firefighter in the mid-70s, he said they rarely dealt with structure fires. Instead, they fought wildland fires. Now, as more people move into the wildland-urban interface, structures fires are the common denominator of fighting any wildfire.
"In the past, 75% of fires didn't involve structures," Domanski said. "The urban sprawl has changed the nature of fighting wildfires. Now there is hardly any wildfire without structures."
Domanski said the Forest Service has mandated more annual budgetary funds for dedicated fuel-mitigation strategies in the wildland-urban interface. However, working on private lands creates its own set of challenges, he said.
"When we work in the wildland-urban interface, not only do we have our federal rules and regulations but we have the regulations of that municipality or county or the state," he said. "Now we have twice as many challenges to overcome to make those things work."
Nelson said that future fire-mitigation strategies should emphasize constructing and maintaining fire-wise homes, restricting the abundance and configuration of residential housing units near wildland, and improving cooperation among private and public landowners — both in implementing fire-mitigation treatments and in paying for fire suppression.