Forest homeowners are first line of defense for wildfires

2014-06-06 Ashley Bach

The increase in wildfires -- and the cost of fighting them -- in the U.S. is well documented. What hurts the most is federal leaders (and many states) aren't devoting enough money to forest restoration to make the forests healthier and more resistant to large fires. 

What's sometimes lost in the shuffle is the role of homeowners who have decided to build in forests, or what is called the "wildland-urban interface." Officials would let a lot of fires burn if they weren't close to people's homes.

Earlier this month, the Obama administration predicted it will spend as much as $2.4 billion this fiscal year to fight wildfires. That's almost three times more than what it cost a decade ago, said (Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, an independent research group in Bozeman, Mont.). Meanwhile, the number of people moving to wilderness communities has also tripled, he said.

With development occurring on only 16 percent of the land in 11 states west of the Dakotas -- a region that experiences the nation's biggest wildfires -- the "problem . . . is about to get many orders of magnitude worse," Rasker said.

Among the 50 states, Washington ranks fourth for the number of homes at high or extreme risk for wildfires. 

According to the International Association of Wildland Fire, federal, state and local taxpayers together pay about $4.7 billion a year for wildfire suppression.

The costs began rising sharply beginning in 1990 as developers built homes, subdivisions and entire communities on nearly 2 million acres of wilderness a year, the group said. Nationwide, 38,600 homes were destroyed by wildfires in the first 12 years of this century, going from 861 in 2000 to 4,244 in 2012, the group said.

A total of 159,800 Oregon homes were at "high" or "extreme" risk for wildfires based on 2010 Census data, according to Verisk Insurance Solutions, which conducts risk assessments for the property and casualty insurance industry. California, with nearly 2 million homes, led the nation. Texas (nearly 1.3 million homes), Colorado (373,600), Washington (163,400) and Idaho (160,800) made up the top five states with the most homes carrying the highest fire risk.

The trend of both increasing wildfires and increasing development in forested areas puts more importance on forest homeowners adequately clearing their property and making it defensible in the event of a wildfire. 

The Yakima Herald-Republic recently profiled a program from the North Yakima Conservation District and Washington Department of Natural Resources that helps homeowners clear their land.

(Carol Inouye) is one of more than 1,300 homeowners living west of Naches on fire-prone forestland. A program to encourage owners to protect their property by creating open spaces around homes is gaining momentum, said Mike Tobin, director of the North Yakima Conservation District.

“Fire is going to happen. It’s incumbent on landowners to protect themselves, not count on a tanker plane flying in to douse the fire,” Tobin said.

The program is paying off, at least on a local level, but homeowners still have to be convinced.

Change doesn’t happen overnight, Tobin said, but he believes that people in the area are shifting their vision about what it means to live in the forest.

“What attracts people to live in the forest is the solitude and the trees, the same things that raise fire risks,” Tobin said. “As more landowners do things like the Inouyes have, it will change how firefighters respond to the region.”

...Inouye said many of her neighbors have embraced the strategies, but others remain resistant to change.

...(Washington DNR fuels stewardship forester Scott Chambers) said all the outreach and education efforts matter, because some people are still hesitant to cut down trees close to their homes.

“People move into the woods and they think that the way it is now is the way it should be,” Chambers said. “But if they don’t clear defensible space and a fire comes through, they could lose everything.”