CU-Boulder GEOG 4430 - Potential for Future Development on Fire-Prone Lands (8 pages)

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Potential for Future Development on Fire-Prone Lands



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fire Potential for Future Development on Fire Prone Lands ABSTRACT Patricia Gude Ray Rasker and Jeff van den Noort Most studies of wildland fire and residential development have focused on the cost of firefighting and solutions such as fuel reduction and fire safe home building Although some studies quantify the number of homes being built near forests little research has indicated the potential magnitude of the problem in the future This article presents data illustrating this emerging problem for western communities Our analysis takes a long view looking at the potential for more home construction next to public forests and implications for future wildfire fighting costs In a study of 11 western states we found that only 14 of the available wildland interface in the West is currently developed leaving great potential for new home construction in the remaining 86 If just one half of the wildland interface is developed in the future annual firefighting costs could escalate to 4 3 billion By comparison the Forest Service s annual budget is about 4 5 billion Keywords wildfire forest fire wildland urban interface residential development L arge areas of land are being converted to housing in the western United States The current preference for rural landscapes Johnson and Beale 1994 Johnson 1999 the increasing popularity of large lots Theobald et al 1997 Hammer et al 2004 and the powerful draw of natural amenities Rasker and Hansen 2000 Schnaiberg et al 2002 Radeloff et al 2005 Gude et al 2006 have all contributed to this trend Widespread population gains in nonmetropolitan counties have taken place since roughly 1970 Brown et al 2005 and housing has become increasingly dispersed particularly in rural areas where land is more affordable The popularity of low density development has lead to large areas of land being converted to housing because each home is consuming more land Theobald et al 1997 Hammer et al 2004 Adjacency to lakes seashores forests national parks and other protected areas are strongly related to the locations of recently built rural homes Bartlett et al 2000 Rasker and Hansen 2000 Radeloff et al 2001 Schnaiberg et al 2002 Radeloff et al 2005 Gude et al 2006 Gude et al 2007 The wildland interface is an area rich in natural amenities where population growth and new housing is on the rise Radeloff et al 2005 Theobald and Romme 2007 In 2000 4 of western homes were located within the wildland urban interface WUI generally defined as areas where structures and other human development meet or intermingle with undeveloped wild land Office of Inspector General OIG 2006 According to Theobald and Romme 2007 the states with the greatest proportion of residential land conversion in the wildland interface from 1970 to 2000 were mostly in the West In addition in many western states more than 50 of new housing areas fall within areas classified as severefire zones which are prone to catastrophic fires Theobald and Romme 2007 Recent increases in the area burned annually by wildfire National Interagency Fire Center NIFC 2007 and the number of homes burned by these fires have put the WUI in the national spotlight Many studies communicated in the scientific literature government documents and the popular press have described the cost of firefighting the risk to firefighter lives and the damage to private property A recent government audit identified the WUI as the primary factor escalating federal firefighting costs in excess of 1 billion in 3 of the past 6 years Office of Inspector General OIG 2006 In 87 of large wildfires reviewed in the audit the protection of private property was described as a major reason for firefighting efforts OIG 2006 In addition to the financial costs homes in the wildland interface are often difficult to protect and create dangerous situations for firefighters because of remoteness steep slopes and narrow roads In the Received October 24 2007 accepted May 1 2008 Patricia Gude patty headwaterseconomics org is landscape ecologist Ray Rasker ray headwaterseconomics org is executive director and Jeff van den Noort jeff headwaterseconomics org is research and technology manager Headwaters Economics 810 N Wallace Avenue Suite D Bozeman MT 59715 The authors thank The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for their generous financial support Two anonymous reviewers and W Keith Moser provided helpful comments on the article Copyright 2008 by the Society of American Foresters 198 Journal of Forestry June 2008 5 year period from 2002 to 2006 6 3 billion in federal funds were spent fighting wildfires NIFC 2007 and 92 people were killed during wildland fire operations National Wildfire Coordinating Group Safety and Health Working Team 2007 but despite the firefighting efforts 10 159 homes were lost to wildfires during this period NIFC 2007 Most discussions of possible solutions and existing federal wildfire policies have focused on improving wildland fuels management Stephens and Ruth 2005 Most studies agree that a combination of thinning and prescribed burning is effective in reducing wildfire effects in specific habitats characterized by short fire return intervals Price and Rind 1994 Pollet and Omi 2002 Fried et al 2004 Martinson and Omi 2006 However many recent studies also conclude that wildfire damage and costs may continue to rise despite fuels management because of extreme weather conditions such as the droughts high winds and increased lightning forecasted to occur in a warming climate Price and Rind 1994 Pollet and Omi 2002 Fried et al 2004 Pierce et al 2004 Westerling et al 2006 The forecasted growth in catastrophic wildfires implies that climatic change could cause an increase in both fire suppression costs and economic losses due to wildfires Torn et al 1998 The West is already experiencing fires driven by drought and strong winds that burn open forests conventionally viewed as relatively fire resistant and closed forests alike Whitlock 2004 While both the effectiveness and the public approval of thinning and prescribed burns are being investigated Beebe and Omi 1993 Shindler and Toman 2003 Youngblood et al 2007 recent studies have pointed out that the likelihood of a house burning has more to do with home ignitability and landscaping than backcountry wildland fuels management Cohen 2000 Guidelines for the amount of defensible space necessary to protect homes range from 40 to 500 m around the home in which vegetation should be thinned sufficiently to break


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