Headline-grabbing wildland-urban interface fires are becoming increasingly common as development continues to expand into the periphery of built-up urban areas.
The thought of a home nestled among forest and shrublands, whether in California, Florida or Maine, is luring many who are fed up with the congestion and close quarters of metropolitan and suburban life. Across the country, subdivisions, vacation cabins and retirement homes are being built in wildlands on the edge of existing development. Such development is done all too often without paying proper attention to the risks that come with living on what is essentially the edge of human settlement.
The wildland-urban interface fire hazard is really two problems: Human activities in the interface and poorly managed wildlands. In all too many cases, programs designed to address the WUI problem are linked only in the broadest sense, with staff specialists working separately on the human aspect of prevention and the ecosystem aspect of hazardous fuels mitigation. The National Fire Plan's emphasis on hazardous fuels reduction is in addition to pre-existing agency wildfire prevention programs, which have existed for decades. But to be successful over the long term, these two program areas must be integrated seamlessly to address both the human and ecosystem dimensions of the WUI problem.
Wildfire is an unavoidable fact of life in every type of vegetation, from pine forest to hardwoods, from sagebrush to marsh grass. It's never a question of if a particular wildland area will burn, but when. Some ecosystems have longer intervals between fires than others, but all will burn under the right conditions.
Disturbances such as wildfires are a natural part of the biological processes that drive ecosystems of all types. A wildfire is neither good nor bad, it's simply a part of nature. It's only when humans become involved — and have something to lose — that such events become a problem.
Physically reducing accumulated hazardous vegetative fuels through prescribed burning, thinning, mowing or other means produces an immediate protective effect. While these activities don't necessarily prevent wildfires, they do decrease the intensity of those that do happen, lessening the risk to communities and creating a safer environment for fire suppression. However, if fuels aren't reduced regularly, this protective effect will be only temporary. Without a long-term plan for maintaining vegetative fuel loads at desirable levels, the hazardous fuel condition will return to pre-treatment levels in a matter of years in the western states or months in the southern states.
The National Fire Plan provides massive federal funding for hazardous fuels reduction projects carried out by federal, state and local agencies across the nation. With priority given to WUI communities identified by state foresters, projects to reduce flammable vegetation using prescribed burning and mechanical means have been put into place in every state. These projects have reduced these communities' risk of wildfire losses, but the benefits may prove to be short-lived if mitigation programs aren't managed properly with an eye toward long-term goals.
The tried-and-true 3-E model of fire prevention — education, enforcement and engineering — is also applicable to wildfire and has been the mainstay of most federal and state wildland agency prevention programs for decades. These programs can be thought of as having both prevention and mitigation aspects. Prevention seeks to stop fires from occurring by reducing ignition sources, and mitigation seeks to reduce the effects of fires by limiting fire spread and protecting life and property.
The hazard of wildland-urban interface fires has both a human and an ecosystem aspect. Wildland fire prevention programs that address the 3-E model generally focus on the human aspect of the problem. Applied to the wildland-urban interface, this generally means lessening the incidence of unwanted, human-caused wildfire ignitions and encouraging the adoption of fire-resistant landscaping and building materials. However, this approach doesn't address the hazard underlying the problem — wildland areas managed in such a way as to create a risk to the community from wildfire. This aspect of the problem tends to be managed under a separate mitigation or hazardous fuels reduction program.
To ensure long-term success, a wildland-urban interface hazard-mitigation program must combine the traditional 3-E approach to fire prevention with sound land management practices. Both approaches are needed to address the human and ecosystem aspects of the WUI problem. The result is a 4-E model for wildfire mitigation: education, engineering, enforcement and ecosystem management.
Fire prevention and mitigation education efforts in the wildland-urban interface must be a collaborative process with multiple objectives. Educating the public on WUI issues is difficult because the issues are complex, ranging from landscaping techniques to ecosystem biological processes. Education efforts also are made more difficult by the seeming paradox of agencies that expend great effort on wildfire suppression efforts and caution the public against starting fires, but who also have aggressive programs for prescribed burning.
An effective public education program can build a stock of good will toward fire service activities among WUI residents and the community in general. Those who live in the interface should understand, in a broad sense, basic ecological processes and the role of fire in the natural landscape. The techniques that land management agencies use to address both the positive and negative aspects of wildland fire should be explained effectively as well. A constituency that better understands these concepts is more likely to support sometimes-controversial land management activities, such as prescribed burning. They're also more likely to forgive the negative aspects of mitigation measures, such as the smoke produced by prescribed fires.
Interface residents should be educated on the steps they can and should take to mitigate the impact of inevitable wildfires. Topics should include such areas as fire-resistive building materials and landscaping techniques, defensible spaces around structures, the importance of ensuring clear access for fire apparatus, and what to do during a WUI fire incident and possible evacuation. Effective educational efforts in this area will increase the safety of the public, minimize property damage and create a safer working environment for firefighters.
The classic topic for wildfire prevention education efforts — think Smokey Bear — is still reducing unwanted ignitions. The community should understand the importance of being careful with fire in the outdoors to limit the number of ignition sources, particularly during periods of high fire danger. Care should be taken to avoid giving the impression that all fire is bad, as this can complicate the implementation of a prescribed-burning program for fuels reduction and land management.
Engineering interventions involve the application of technological solutions to the problem of unwanted fires. They fall into two basic categories: those that limit unwanted ignitions, and those that limit the damage from wildfires that do occur.
In spite of the best prevention efforts, it's highly unlikely that wildfires will be entirely absent. For those fires that do start and threaten a WUI community, engineering interventions can mitigate potential damage. While designing and implementing fuel breaks won't necessarily stop an advancing wildfire, these defensive structures can cause fire behavior to change markedly, slowing fire spread and creating a safer environment for firefighters. Well-designed landscaping can serve as a fuel break, as can purposely constructed firebreaks of cleared land.
Similarly, encouraging or requiring the use of fire-resistive exterior building materials can reduce the chances for wildfires to spread to structures. Metal roofs and non-combustible wall materials limit the opportunities for fire brands to ignite structures, while wooden decks and fences attached to structures can serve as bridges for fire spread.
Although lightning and a few other natural phenomena account for many wildfires, humans contribute their fair share of fire starts — both intentionally and inadvertently. Engineering interventions can be used to limit the chances that some types of human-caused heat sources find their way to a receptive fuel bed and produce a wildfire.
Requiring the use of wire-mesh screens over trash-burning barrels and chimneys to stop sparks from flying is probably the simplest example of this sort of engineering intervention. Another common example is the requirement to use spark arresters on the exhaust outlets of internal combustion engines, including those of chain saws, dirt bikes, four-wheelers and lawn mowers.
Just as with engineering techniques, enforcement interventions can be broadly categorized as those that seek to prevent unwanted ignitions and those that seek to limit the damage from wildfires. In the wildfire world, these interventions often refer to law enforcement activities related to outdoor burning and wildland arson.
While these practices remain relevant, they should be considered as part of a broader concept of enforcement. For example, the adoption of relevant codes and standards that deal with mitigation of the fire threat to WUI communities can be an effective enforcement strategy. Adoption of these documents as ordinances or regulatory rules by local government bodies can result in building developments that are resistant to wildfire damage by design.
Codes and standards with particular relevance for WUI communities include:
- NFPA 1142, Water Supplies for Suburban and Rural Firefighting.
- NFPA 1144, Protection of Life and Property from Wildfire.
- IFCI International Urban-Wildland Interface Code.
The enforcement of laws, rules and regulations relating to the use of fire in the outdoors are geared toward the reduction of human-caused wildfire ignitions. These strategies include prevention patrols on public lands for enforcing campfire rules, as well as activities that enforce burn bans or restrictions on certain activities, like welding, during periods of high fire danger. Enforcement also includes fire cause determination and investigation activities in arson cases.
The fourth “E” in a truly integrated wildfire mitigation program is ecosystem management. While the preceding three focused on the human aspects of the problem, sound land management practices address the natural, or ecosystem, side of the hazard.
This isn't to suggest that a natural landscape should be viewed strictly as a potential wildfire hazard. Wildlands provide multiple benefits to the community, but they require sound management practices to maximize those benefits while minimizing the potential hazards. The benefits to be derived from a wildland area depend on the specifics of climate, terrain and vegetative type. These benefits can be both economic and environmental in nature. Typical examples include:
- Outdoor recreation, such as camping, hiking, hunting and bird-watching.
- Increased water quality and quantity through water retention and sediment trapping.
- Forest products like timber, pulpwood, firewood, pinestraw and mushrooms.
- Scenic vistas, which enhance both quality of life and property values.
- Grazing lands, both forested and grassland.
- Flood protection, as vegetated landscapes can mitigate flood hazards.
These benefits aren't sustained by accident while humans are busily modifying parts of the landscape or altering natural processes. Without human influence, wildlands manage themselves. The resulting product of such a wilderness situation is neither good nor bad, but it may not be amenable to human interests. When humans settle in areas adjacent to former wilderness areas, there are direct and indirect effects — of humans on the wildland and vice versa. These effects are perceived as negative when they have an adverse effect on human endeavors or interests.
A truly effective program of community risk-reduction requires specialists in public safety education. Likewise, specialized expertise is required to implement an effective program of ecosystem management that not only provides the short-term benefit of hazardous fuels reduction for wildfire mitigation, but also ensures mitigation over the long term while simultaneously meeting other compatible management goals. This expertise exists in the form of land management professionals: foresters, wildlife biologists, range managers, soil scientists, hydrologists and other allied experts trained in managing natural landscapes for multiple benefits over long periods of time.
Collaboration is key
Wildland-urban interface areas are typified not only by the intermingling of wildland fuels with structures and other human development, but also by complex jurisdictional issues. It's not uncommon to find contiguous, and sometimes overlapping, responsibility for fire protection by municipal, county, state and federal agencies, as well as by private organizations. Along with this jurisdictional complexity comes an equally complex, and often conflicting, set of goals and priorities for managing the WUI problem.
The requirements for implementing a successful wildfire mitigation program are usually beyond the means of any one agency. It's universally accepted that a major WUI fire incident will require an interagency response. Likewise, stakeholder agencies and organizations must pool resources and expertise to mitigate the impact of these incidents. While municipal and county fire department prevention staffs are a good source of traditional 3-E expertise, these same agencies are unlikely to have the requisite skills to effectively carry out a hazardous fuels management program. Similarly, the fire prevention programs of wildland agencies don't have the depth or history of those from structural fire agencies.
Efforts to mitigate wildland fire hazards are excellent venues for interagency associations or councils, where agencies and community organizations can meet to prioritize, plan and focus their resources and skills in a coordinated mitigation program. In addition to representatives from fire departments, state and federal wildland agencies, and emergency managers, such forums should include other stakeholders that have an interest in the success of the mitigation effort, such as:
- American Red Cross chapter,
- SafeKids coalition,
- Cattle ranchers' association,
- Logging industry association,
- Environmental groups,
- Real estate development association,
- County cooperative extension service,
- Resource conservation and development district, and
- Regional planning and development district.
Such interagency forums, when properly constituted, also can serve as a nucleus for attracting wildfire mitigation and fire prevention grants from the U.S. departments of Agriculture, Interior and Homeland Security, as well as other sources. Most importantly, however, they serve as a coordinating body to eliminate duplication of effort, optimize resource-sharing, focus mitigation efforts and resolve interagency conflicts.
Mitigate, but be prepared
A successful wildfire prevention and mitigation program will require several years to fully mature. In the meantime, the community will be only partially protected. Even the best mitigation measures can be overwhelmed by extreme fire behavior brought on by exceptionally dry and windy weather conditions. With this in mind, mitigation planners should integrate preparedness into their activities. Some items to consider include:
Water supply. Plan and develop alternative water supplies to compensate for inadequate or nonexistent municipal water systems in WUI areas. Dry hydrants installed at streams and ponds are the most common method, but don't overlook other sources, such as swimming pools and irrigation systems. Installation of cisterns or water tanks is another option.
Evacuation. Plan ahead to get civilians out of threatened WUI areas to protect them and keep them from interfering in firefighting operations. Under certain circumstances, large cleared areas may allow for a shelter-in-place option. Don't forget to plan for livestock evacuation, including horses, which can sometimes be a major factor in WUI neighborhoods.
Mobility hazards. Know where the chokepoints are in WUI neighborhoods through thorough pre-incident planning. Roads in these communities may be narrow, turn-arounds inadequate, and bridges unable to support the weight of fire apparatus. These hazards can be especially dangerous if out-of-area resources are deployed to the incident. You may not be able to correct all of these deficiencies, but at least you can plan around them.
Facilities. Identify or construct potential incident facilities ahead of time. Large, cleared areas such as parks and athletic fields can serve as safety zones. School or church parking lots can be used as staging areas and incident bases. It's quite possible that aircraft will be involved in any major wildfire incident, so identify likely areas to serve as temporary landing zones or dip sites for helicopter water buckets. The more identified logistical facilities, the less chaos there will be during an incident.
Practice. Develop incident preplans for likely WUI scenarios and try them out through an exercise program. The time to discover problems with incompatible hose threads is not during the actual wildfire. Develop a Type III incident management team from cooperating agencies' staffs and exercise that, too.
Lawyers. Put effective memoranda of understanding in place to ensure mutual aid resources are available and that disputes over who picks up the bill are minimized. This can be a difficult process due to the different legal mandates of local, state, federal and private sector organizations, but it can't be ignored.
Effective wildfire mitigation is an integrated, collaborative effort. The wildland-urban interface is characterized by a threat from the hazard of wildfire incidents, complex jurisdictional issues and a dangerous environment for emergency responders. Communities at risk stand to lose not only homes and other structures, but a long list of economic and and other resources.
A successful wildfire mitigation program will have at its heart three basic goals:
- Reduce hazards to life and property,
- Improve firefighter safety, and
- Maximize wildland ecosystem benefits.
These goals will be accomplished through a program based on a 4-E intervention strategy: education, engineering, enforcement and ecosystem management.
Implementing a successful wildfire mitigation program means long-term commitment and broad-based collaboration. Results won't appear overnight, and an effort has to be made to maintain community, government and agency support for the program. Technical expertise from a number of disciplines must be brought to bear on the problem, including emergency response, community planning, public education, development and construction, and natural resources management.
A successful program not only will reduce wildfire hazards, it will yield other tangible benefits. Properly managed wildlands are a benefit to the community in and of themselves. With proper stewardship, they support multiple uses. Mitigation is mitigation, and wildfire mitigation measures will serve to limit the impact of other hazards threatening the community, such as windstorms, pest outbreaks, flooding and hazmat releases.
Putting an effective program in place to mitigate the negative effects of the wildfire hazard isn't an easy task, but it's not impossible. It requires commitment from all the stakeholders involved, as well as their combined expertise. The challenges are great, but so are the rewards. It all starts with planning and teamwork.
Jeremy A. Keller, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is the wildland-urban interface fire specialist for the Gulf Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Gautier, Miss. Prior to his current position, he has worked for the Florida Division of Forestry and the U.S. Forest Service. He has been active in the wildfire mitigation field since 1999 and holds bachelor's and master's degrees in forest management, as well as the Certified Forester professional designation.