Will wildfires grow ever bigger, more frequent — and deadlier? Those who live in the rugged West are enduring another summer of scorched-earth devastation.
Colorado this year saw the most devastating wildfire in its history, a blaze that killed two people and destroyed 16,000 acres and more than 500 buildings. Arizona is still mourning the deaths of 19 elite firefighters who died in the worst wildfire tragedy the state has ever seen. Californians have fought 43 percent more fires this year than the past four years.
Nationwide, the six worst fire seasons since 1960 have burned in the past 13 years. That includes 2012, when 9.2 million acres went up in flames. The worst year was 2006, when 9.8 million acres burned.
Western state lawmakers have called on the federal government for more help and criticized its management of public lands, where large fires often start and then spread to private and state lands. That’s no small issue in a region dominated by federally owned lands, which cover about 70 percent of Arizona and virtually all of Nevada, for example. The U.S. Forest Service labels about 65 million acres of its land “high or very high risk of catastrophic wildfires.”
At the same time, these lawmakers are pondering how to use their own scarce resources. While some conditions, including hotter, drier weather, are beyond their control, states and localities can dictate where people live.
Whether craving rugged terrain or a semblance of solitude, westerners are increasingly settling in communities abutting wilderness that make up what's called the wildland urban interface, or WUI. The population shift has brought in new fire threats and put more people and property in harm’s way, while also making firefighting more complicated and expensive.
Fire-prone Texas, Utah, Colorado, Washington and Arizona each rank among the top fast-growing states since 2010, with much of the new population settling in the WUI.
The trend isn’t new, but it’s snowballing. In the 1990s, some 61 percent of newly built homes in Washington, Oregon and California were considered inside the WUI, according to a study published in the International Journal of Wildland Fires. By 2000, about 42 percent of all homes in those three states fell within such regions. Researchers at Colorado State University expect Colorado’s WUI to explode to more than 2.1 million acres by 2030 — triple its 2000 size.
“With the housing market picking up again,” said Ray Rasker, a wildfire expert at Headwaters Economics, a nonpartisan Montana-based think tank, “we’re going to see more people building in the fire zones, and the U.S. taxpayers are going to pay for it.”
A major problem Rasker sees is the disconnect between federal and local authorities that few lawmakers appear willing to address. Although state and local leaders play a huge role in fire policy by setting laws on zoning, building construction and property maintenance, it’s often the federal government’s job to step in to fight the fires or later dole out disaster aid.
“There just aren’t financial repercussions for building in dangerous zones,” Rasker said. “You solve that problem and the others will fall into place.”
Some experts suggest that federal and state lawmakers examine broad policy changes that would slow the population shift into the WUI, or at least make its inhabitants more responsible for their decisions.
In fact, that idea surfaced as long as seven years ago in a federal report. “Mandatory zoning and building regulations may be needed to compel landowners to take the actions necessary to protect their homes and property from wildfire,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s inspector general wrote.
“If state and local agencies became more financially responsible for WUI protection,” the report continued, “it would likely encourage these agencies to more actively implement land use regulations that minimize the risk to people and structures from wildfire.”
Thousands of communities have enacted strong fire-proofing measures, but many more go without protection, or shelve existing plans for lack of money or political will. The same often holds true within WUI communities; while one homeowner might spend thousands of dollars on a fire-resistant roof and property maintenance — clearing fire-fueling dried brush and branches, for instance — a neighbor may neglect nearby property.