Large communities destroyed by wildfire has become a yearly occurrence as of late. Lahaina last year, Colorado communities in the 2021 Marshall Fire, Oregon communities in the 2020 Labor Day firestorms including the Almeda Drive Fire, and Paradise, California — leveled by the 2018 Camp Fire — all these communities were devastated by wildfire.
And the economic cost is incalculable — the Denver Post reported last year that the Marshall Fire was Colorado’s costliest ever; it destroyed $2 billion in property and killed two people.
USFS researchers are using the stories of these destroyed communities to try to find commonality — and possibly a solution to the growing threat of fast-spreading wildland/urban interface fires. Each of these fires was human-caused or ignited near or inside communities — and all of them occurred during extreme wind events — and they immediately overwhelmed both wildland and structural firefighting efforts. The most important, and arguably most overlooked, commonality is that none of the above fires were technically “wildfires” at all, but were “conflagrations,” or fires that spread past built barriers.
“These problem fires were defined as an issue of wildfires that involved houses,” researchers said. “In reality, they are urban fires initiated by wildfires. That’s an important distinction — and one that has big repercussions for how we prepare for future fires.”
… none of the above fires were technically “wildfires” at all, but were “conflagrations,” or fires that spread past built barriers.
The importance of the distinction laid out by the researchers lies in what people believe the solution might be. Recent federal investments in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Inflation Reduction Act address fire risk and prioritize fuel treatments on public lands.
But fuels reduction on federal lands would not have prevented any of the above fires. As wildfire suppression costs have increased, so have disastrous interface fires. Most wildfires are started by humans on private lands, and those fires destroy a majority of western U.S. structures.
“Wildland fires do not per se encroach on communities,” the report says. “Rather, it’s communities that have impinged on wildlands, where fires play an important ecological role.”
If the goal of wildfire management is to stop the destruction of human communities, then communities and local governments must accept that wildland fires are a necessary and inevitable ecological aspect of the land they are living on. The change in mindset from wildfire suppression to adaptive living will require a shift at all levels of society. But the destruction and long recovery aftermath of each of the burned communities mentioned above shows that the rewards may outweigh the risks.
The California community of Paradise, leveled in 2018 by the Camp Fire, has been rebuilding partly with that idea in mind.
A few of the homes were rebuilt with a World War II-era military design, which is very resistant to ignition. The needed shift will take more than the transition of a few community homes, but it’s a start. Other changes, such as new construction siting, design, construction materials, and landscaping requirements will also need to be part of the new paradigm.
“We have to live with wildland fire, says the report. “We don’t have to live with fire in our communities.”