There remains a constant tension between the ecological benefits provided by periodic wildfire and the negative impacts it can have on human populations. Most often, we hear about the devastating effect that wildfires have on people and communities, which was especially tragic over the weekend. American Forests sends our condolences to the families and friends of the firefighters who lost their lives battling the Arizona forest fires.
One of the reasons the news is so often negative these days is because wildfire seasons are longer and more intense than ever before. America’s wildfire season lasts about two months longer than it did in the 1970s and burns twice as much land. This drastic increase is caused by the hotter and drier conditions produced by climate change, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell told Congress last month. To put even more pressure on the situation, federal funding cuts have resulted in fewer wildfire prevention programs and firefighting personnel on duty.
In addition to climate change and funding, there are several other factors that complicate wildfire. One of these factors is increased development in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). As more people live and work around areas with trees, fire-related challenges are bound to increase. Around 32 percent of U.S. housing units are situated in the WUI, according to a study published in Forest Ecology and Management in 2009. That figure is only expected to increase as development and population growth continue in urban areas. From 1990 to 2000, more than six million homes were added to WUI areas.
The unique structure of an urban environment also changes the nature of wildfire and the strategies needed to address it. Areas of dense housing can result in significant damage in a wildfire, as it can easily spread from house to house, and human-caused fires are more likely to occur. Protecting homes and other large structures also results in higher firefighting costs. But, efforts such as informed land-use decisions, planned landscaping choices and fire prevention educational material can help reduce a community’s vulnerability to wildfire. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and its coalition partners provide such materials through the Fire-Adapted Communities program. The USFS also issues reports, like its “Wildfire, Wildlands, and People: Understanding and Preparing for Wildfire in the Wildland-Urban Interface,” that educate community planners, as well as the public, on WUI wildfire risks, high risk areas in the U.S. and what can be done to lower those risks before a fire occurs.
Wildfire is an increasingly challenging issue for this country, but it’s encouraging to see the work that’s being done to reduce risks, especially in more densely populated urban areas, in hopes that we can avert future tragedies.