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Not enough attention being paid to built environment amid wildfire crisis, scholars say

Moose Fire overlooks the North Fork General Store.jpeg
Dan Peters
Idaho's 2022 Moose Fire overlooked the North Fork General Store on July 25.

Prescribed fires and other forest treatments have a proven track record of reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire. But a new paper argues that an over-reliance on those practices has come at the expense of efforts to make homes and communities more resilient.

The Marshall Fire. Lahaina. Paradise. These are tragic incidents in recent history that speak to fire’s destructive potential. But the authors of a new Headwaters Economics whitepaper say they also have lessons for better ways to reduce that threat.

“Wildland fuel treatments are seen as the primary tool to reduce structure loss despite decades of research demonstrating that the conditions of the structures and their immediate surroundings are largely responsible for loss,” the paper reads. “This is a community responsibility.”

“When you look at the wildland urban interface (WUI) and even the connotations of that term, we continually invest and emphasize 99% of our efforts in the wildland while overlooking the urban,” lead author Kimiko Barrett said. “What we tried to do in this paper is call that out and say, ‘if what we are defining as the problem of the wildfire crisis is damage to homes and communities, homes and communities have to be part of the solution.’”

She said that will include getting additional federal agencies with expertise in housing and structural firefighting involved, like the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Fire Administration. But it also means policies likely to generate controversy in the West, like regulations that would require structures to be built to withstand fire and reduce their exposure to blazes.

“Regulations, building codes, zoning, all of the measures that are out there within the toolbox to actually compel the level of mitigation needed to make a difference, which would be at neighborhood and community scale, does have to come from the local jurisdiction,” Barrett said. “So that's going to have some obvious pushback, because here in America, we don't like to be told what to do with our own private lands and property.”

To protect themselves from wildfire, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners recommends homeowners create defensible space by removing combustible materials from around their structures, and using noncombustible building materials. A full list of recommendations can be found here.

“The lesson I draw from history is one that nobody wants to hear, which is to say that it will take some political decisions that are then enforced to compel creating a more fire-safe environment,” noted wildfire historian and paper co-author Stephen Pyne told the Mountain West News Bureau.

“Otherwise,” he added. “We will just limp along and make some progress and have some failures and just sort of muddle through and hope we can get control of climate change soon enough at scale that we can leave something for our grandchildren to rebuild from.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

As Boise State Public Radio's Mountain West News Bureau reporter, I try to leverage my past experience as a wildland firefighter to provide listeners with informed coverage of a number of key issues in wildland fire. I’m especially interested in efforts to improve the famously challenging and dangerous working conditions on the fireline.