Forest Service ‘red zone’ report highlights sucesses of fuel treatments, challenges of more exurban growth


A U.S. Forest Service map shows the fire-return interval in different regions of the U.S.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — As the U.S. population grows, so does exurban development in the fire-prone red zone, formally and awkwardly called the wildland-urban interface. Just in the last decade of the 20th century, the WUI grew by 18 percent, putting more lives, homes and infrastructure in harm’s way. According to a new U.S. Forest Service report, about 6 million homes were added in the red zone during that time.

Until local governments figure out a way to get a handle on those life-threatening development patterns, the Forest Service will have to cut more and more of the adjacent forests to try and mitigate the wildfire danger. In a recent report, the agency says its fuel reduction treatments have been highly effective in reducing the intensity of wildfire and also allowing for better wildfire control.

The report, which synthesized recent research, found that 90 percent of the fuel treatment projects were effective to some degree. The information is aimed at giving community planners better tools to show what works in the red zone.

According to the report, about 32 percent of U.S. housing units and 10 percent of all land with housing are the wildland-urban interface. The growth of residential zones around fire-prone forests has resulted in huge budget challenges for the Forest Service. Between 2001 and 2010, fire suppression costs doubled to about $1.2 billion. Read the full report here.

Other costs include restoration, lost tax and business revenues, property damage and costs to human health and lives. As and example, the report cites the 1996 Buffalo Creek Fire, which resulted in more than $2 million in flood damage and $20 million in damage to Denver Water’s supply system.

From the report:

  • In 2000, nearly a third of U.S. homes (37 million) were located in the WUI.
  • More than two-thirds of all land in Connecticut is identified as WUI.
  • California has more homes in WUI than any other State—3.8 million.
  • Between 1990 and 2000, more than 1 million homes were added to WUI in California, Oregon, and Washington combined.
  • WUI is especially prevalent in areas with natural amenities, such as the northern Great Lakes, the Missouri Ozarks, and northern Georgia.
  • In the Rocky Mountains and the Southwest, virtually every urban area has a large ring of WUI, as a result of persistent population growth in the region that has generated medium and low-density housing in low- elevation forested areas.

“The Wildfire, Wildlands and People report reminds us that people can and should take steps to protect their homes from wildfires,” said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “Communities with robust wildfire prevention programs are likely to have fewer human-caused wildfires. In addition, fire intensity is dramatically reduced in areas where restoration work has occurred.”

Between 2006 and 2011, some 600 assessments were completed on wildfires that burned into areas where restoration work had taken place. In most of these cases, fire intensity was reduced dramatically in treated areas. Residents can reduce excess vegetation within and around a community to reduce the intensity and growth of future fires and create a relatively safe place for firefighters to work to contain a wildfire, should one occur.

From 2001-2011, an average of 85 percent of wildfires in the U.S. were human caused. The two areas with the highest percentage of wildfires caused by people are the East (99 percent) and the South (96 percent).

The report is part of the Forests on the Edge project, which seeks to identify areas across the country where timber, wildlife habitat and water quality might be affected on private forests by factors such as development, fire, insect pests and diseases.

The project also seeks to understand where increases in housing density on lands adjacent to national forests and grasslands might affect recreation, wildlife, water resources and other important public benefits.

Fire Information

  • Firewise: The National Fire Protection Association’s Firewise Communities program encourages local solutions for wildfire safety by involving homeowners, community leaders, planners, developers, firefighters, and others in the effort to protect people and property from wildfire risks.
  • Ready! Set! Go! :Take personal responsibility and prepare long before the threat of a wildland fire so your home is ready in case of a fire. Plan escape routes and make sure all those residing within the home know the plan of action.
  • Wildfire Smoke: Smoke from wildfires is a mixture of gases and fine particles from burning trees and other plant materials. Smoke can hurt your eyes, irritate your respiratory system, and worsen chronic heart and lung diseases.

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