More Homes in Forests Increase Washington Firefighting Costs

By SCOTT SANDSBERRY | November 20, 2012

The reddish-orange stain on the boulders lining their long rural driveway reminds Susan and Al Maza just how close they came to losing their home to wildfire.

The stain is from fire retardant dropped by air tankers during 2010’s Cowiche Mill Fire, which scorched much of the Mazas’ 40-acre spread and roared to within 20 feet of their West Valley house. That the home still stands is a testament to the fire crews whose efforts Susan Maza describes as “like watching a choreography of a ballet … everything according to plan.”

That firefighters were able to execute that plan, though, is also a testament to the Mazas.

Because they built so far out in the country, the Mazas took seriously their responsibility to make their home as fire-safe as possible. They wrapped their driveway around the house so emergency vehicles could get through, and maintained a tree-and-fuels-free buffer which allowed firefighters to halt the fire’s progress.

Not all residents of what land managers and fire experts call the “wildland-urban interface,” though, will be so fortunate. The Mazas have close friends who own a stately cabin in the forested hills near Cliffdell.

“I just hope they’re well-insured,” Susan Maza says. “If they had the winds like we had and they had a fire, it would just blow right through there. They wouldn’t be able to save it.”

Fire crews would almost certainly try. And they would probably spend many times the cabin’s value to defend it, while tying up firefighting resources that might be put to better use elsewhere.

In an era of increasingly large wildfires, the wildland-urban interface – where the forest meets development – has become the front line of a financial battlefield.

“Politically, no one wants to hear it – but the reality is there are places we should not be putting people,” says Jakki McLean, Yakima County’s fire marshal. “You own property and you want to build on it … but for your own protection, maybe you shouldn’t be building there.”

Photo by Patsy Lynch/FEMA

Yet people continue to do so. Some 45 million homes are already in fire-prone forests across the country, a number federal officials expect to rise another 40 percent by the year 2030. It’s a trend that chaffs at Neil Sampson, a former Senior Fellow with American Forests who consults on federal forest practices.

“God almighty, I started writing about that in 1970, and it has not gotten anything but worse ever since,” Sampson says. “It’s the sort of thing local government can’t grapple with very well.”

And Washington state has more wildland-urban interface than most states.

A 2009 study found the state has nearly 200,000 residences in its wildland-urban interface – defined by the study’s author, Montana-based Headwaters Economics, as private forestlands within 500 meters of public forestlands. Washington’s level of development in wildland-urban areas, according to the study, is the second-highest (21 percent) among the 11 Western states.

“The threat is real,” says The Nature Conservancy’s Reese Lolley. “You go up (State Route) 410 and see houses up on the hillside and you think, ‘Really? Really?”‘

Defending homes in the wildland-urban interface is by far the priciest part of fighting large wildfires, accounting for 50 percent to 95 percent of total suppression costs, according to a 2006 federal audit. The mere presence of those homes also drives wildland firefighting policy, turning many a naturally-caused fire that might otherwise be allowed to run its course – often to the long-term benefit of the forest – into one that must be suppressed to protect the houses.

“Only about 2 percent of these (naturally-ignited) fires are allowed to burn now, and the main reason is there are homes in the way,” says Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics. “So we can’t even implement the policies we have, our fuel build-up situation is getting worse, and we’re getting more and more homes in harm’s way.”

Progress has been made in educating those homeowners – through fire-preparedness programs such as Firewise and Ready, Set, Go! – to make their property as “ignition-resistant” as possible.

But those programs are after-the-fact; states and counties remain reluctant to adopt restrictive codes for building within the wildland-urban interface. The International Code Council’s International Wildland-Urban Interface Code has been adopted statewide by only two states, Nevada and Pennsylvania, and by some municipalities and counties in 10 other states.

In Washington, Yakima County adopted the ICC’s code in 2001 and remained the state’s only local government to do so until the last two years, when three other counties and a half-dozen municipalities adopted all or part of the standards. But each of the five or six times legislation has been introduced requiring statewide adoption – most recently last spring – it became mired in committees.

“Yakima County showed real leadership,” says Kraig Stevenson, ICC’s senior regional manager, “because it takes a little bit to implement that code.”

The biggest pieces of that “little bit”: the funding to do the extensive mapping necessary to determine what areas constitute wildland-urban interface, and the commitment of local authorities to demand strict adherence to the code standards on all future development.

“Well-written codes, properly enforced, do more to protect the public than anything we do,” says McLean, the fire marshal.

Then why is it so difficult to convince states and communities to adopt the international codes? Money.

“Prevention produces both less cost and less damage,” says Sampson, the forest policy expert. “But prevention requires intentional cost, whereas the big wildfire event can be written off as accidental, emergency damage. And, politically, we’d rather pay 100 times emergency cost than one time intentional, preventative cost.”

“Anything that adds cost always becomes a political issue, because we’re typical human beings,” McLean says. “Everybody believes it will never happen to us: ‘I’m really careful.’

“You may be, but the three most common causes of fire are men, women and children.”

What can or should be done to stem development in the wildland-urban interface? And who should do it?

“If we were having this conversation, I’d have said the insurance industry, that’s the level we need to pull,” says Laura McCarthy, The Nature Conservancy’s senior national policy advisor for fire and forest restoration. “I thought that’s where we were going to get the incentive for local communities and homeowners to do the right thing.”

McCarthy no longer feels that way. The industry’s financial losses related to wildfire “are just not significant enough,” she said, and won’t be as long as federal fire resources remain committed to protecting homes in fire-prone areas.

And what incident commander wants to risk the legal and political ramifications of any firefighting decision based not on protection of homes, but on forest health?

“That’s been tried,” Sampson says, “and the political blowback gets really severe on the Forest Service whenever they don’t go all-out to rescue some piddly-ass building up in the boonies.”

The federal and state agencies that will pick up the bulk of the firefighting tab aren’t the ones allowing development – nor can they dictate to municipalities how they should go about their business.

“There isn’t a Forest Service or BLM person who publicly wants to talk about that,” says Headwaters Economics’ Rasker. “There’s something sacrosanct about private land that you can’t talk about.” And county commissioners? “The last thing they want to do is talk about their fair share of the cost.

“If more of the cost (of fire suppression) were borne by those who make the decisions to build, we’d see a very different pattern of development around the West.”

For now, Yakima County remains not only at the vanguard in terms of its codes, but also its relatively minimal wildland-urban interface development. According to Headwater Economics’ figures, only 7 percent of the county’s 60 square miles of the interface has homes (just over 1,100 homes total) – far less than the 16 percent average for the 11 Western states or Washington’s statewide 21 percent.

But the flip side of the picture is that the numbers mean 93 percent of Yakima County’s wildland-urban interface is still out there, just waiting for people with means to build. And many people will do just that – for better or for worse.

“People move to the WUI because they want the beauty and want to stretch out, but they’re also farther away from where the fire services assets are,” says Julie Rochman, president/CEO of the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety. “People want it both ways. They want to live where they want to live and not have there be any negative consequences.

“And it’s just not going to be that way.”

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