Forest Service maps development boom in fire-prone exurbs

Budgets aren’t keeping up with wildfire risks

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Red zone development boom eats up firefighting budgets.

Staff Report

Sprawling exurban development across the U.S. has put more homes than ever at risk of catastrophic wildfires, according to a new U.S. Forest Service report that maps recent expansion of the so-called wildland-urban interface.

The incredible spurt in home building in that fire-prone zone has  direct implications for the cost of wildfire fighting. Increasing densities of people and infrastructure in the WUI makes wildfire management more complex and requires more firefighting assets to ensure an appropriate, safe and effective response, Forest Service officials said as they released new report.Coupled with a lengthening wildfire season, the unchecked sprawl of development in the wildland-urban interface has driven up the cost of fighting fires, with 52 percent of the Forest Service budget in 2015 set aside for fire suppression, compared to 16 percent in 1995. In mid-August, the agency spent a record $243 million on firefighting in just one week.

By September 2015, the Forest Service had already exceeded the funding set aside for fire suppression and was forced to borrow funds meant for other Forest Service activities, which crimps other critical programs.

“The expanding wildland urban interface is a critical issue for wildland firefighting and for the conservation of our forests,” said Robert Bonnie, U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment “More people, homes, and infrastructure are at risk than ever before. As the WUI grows, our fire fighters must commit greater resources to protect homes and property which dramatically increases the cost of fire suppression,” Bonnie said.

The bipartisan Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, already introduced in the House and Senate, is an important step forward in addressing the funding problems. The proposed legislation, which mirrors a similar proposal in President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2016 Budget, would provide a fiscally responsible mechanism to treat wildfires more like other natural disasters, end “fire transfers” and partially replenish the ability to restore resilient forests and protect against future fire outbreaks.

While WUI expansion has increased the likelihood that wildfire will threaten structures and people and increase the number of people affected by wildfire, not all WUI acres are at high risk of wildfire or the only management concern. Increased risk of invasive species and disruption of wildlife and ecosystem processes often accompany human habitation, making the WUI maps an important guide in conservation work.

To download a copy of this publication, visit the Northern Research Station’s website.

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