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Flash Point: The Wildland Urban Interface, Where the Wilderness Meets Civilization
The Wildland Urban Interface: Where the Wilderness Meets Civilization
By Andrea Chalfin • April 24, 2013
Listen to the piece here, or download by right-clicking this link.
For many, the notion of the Wildland Urban Interface, or WUI, may conjure up images of sparsely populated regions of cabins in the woods. That’s only part of the picture. In Colorado Springs, nearly a quarter of the population lives in neighborhoods classified as part of the WUI, and it stretches into some unexpected places.
“You look at this neighborhood, and you don’t think ‘Wildland Urban Interface.’ This looks like just a regular old neighborhood. But the fact that it’s at the base of the foothills, and they have shake shingle roofs, there’s homes in here that are rated between high and extreme…”
Christina Randall, administrator of Wildland Mitigation for the Colorado Springs Fire Department, points out a neighborhood at the south end of the city’s WUI. It consists of small lots, with gambel oak speckling the terrain. A number of the homes are changing their roofs.
“This doesn’t look like a forest, and that’s why we don’t call them forest fires,” Randall says. “This is a ‘wildland urban incident.’”
Randall says they rate WUI by topography and vegetation, things like gambel oak or oak brush, mixed conifers and certain types of grasses. That’s why areas as far east as Palmer Park, UCCS, and their adjacencies are technically part of the WUI.
The Wildland Urban Interface spans more than 28,000 acres north to south, crossing Interstate 25, and touching Academy Boulevard in places near Palmer Park. Fire Chief Rich Brown recently put it another way.
“This is the most affected urban interface in the state of Colorado,” Brown says, “which is in our jurisdiction of Colorado Springs, and it’s the 9th most threatened community in the western United States, right over here west of I-25.”
And when it comes to population density in the city’s WUI, Tom Huber, a UCCS professor of Geography and Environmental Studies, says we’re not necessarily unique.
“California has a very serious problem,” he says, “and that came out in the Berkley Hills fire a couple of decades ago, where it’s really dense, and it’s in the same kind of environment, and many more people were killed and many structures were destroyed.”
That 1991 fire jumped an 8-lane highway, killing 25 people, and destroying nearly 3,800 housing units.
A third of our housing units in the U.S. could be considered in the urban interface.
Mowery estimates there are currently 70,000 at-risk communities across the country. And while vegetation and development alone indicates that most WUI is in the East and Southeast, Mowery says that’s not where the biggest threat lies.
“It’s considering what that fire risk is, what the fire history is, what the weather, the development patterns, the housing density – It’s all of these factors combined,” she says. “So maps that only indicate density and vegetation don’t tell the full story. So it may look deceiving as if the East Coast is where our greatest Wildland Urban Interface is … Yes, but it’s not necessarily where the greatest threat is.”
Given the size of Colorado Springs’ WUI, Christina Randall says it’s important residents understand some of the mechanics of wildland fires. For example, embers can travel up to two miles in some instances.
“The reality is people tend to think of a fire spreading like a curtain of flames, just moving through the neighborhood,” she says. “And the fire’s not that systematic. It’s more opportunistic. So an ember landing in some pine needles in your gutter, or on some cushions in some lawn furniture, that’s all it takes a lot of times.”
One of the tools the Colorado Springs Fire Department champions is mitigation. Huber calls it mimicking Mother Nature. But after the Waldo Canyon Fire, the city and organizations like Fire Adapted Communities cite Cedar Heights as evidence that mitigation can help. While the weather may have played a role, officials do cite mitigation as affecting the safety of the Cedar Heights neighborhood. It’s not foolproof, but Molly Mowery says it gives the homes a chance.
“In cases where there was mitigation, there are also saves,” she says. “And whether it was a passive save or an active one, meaning there was some type of intervention, or whether the mitigation stood up on its own, that’s an important thing to consider.”
The Colorado Springs Fire Department works with individual homeowners and neighborhoods, and in open space, thinning out overgrowth.
“What people consider a natural look is really overgrown, and overstocked, and so what we try to do is even though we’re reducing fuels and thinning out, we’re still trying to maintain that natural character,” she says. “So keeping native and natural vegetation as much as possible. Just trying to reduce the fuel-loading and making it healthier.”
Fire Adapted Communities credits mitigation as a factor in an 82 percent save rate during the Waldo Canyon Fire. For the city’s mitigation unit and its annual $300,000 budget, it’s estimated more than $75 million dollars in damages were prevented.
The Fire Department’s mitigation budget is supplemented through grants, and the report from Fire Adapted Communities acknowledges changes in weather could have meant higher losses.
|Return to Main Flash Point page
WILDLAND URBAN INTERFACE IN COLORADO SPRINGS
RELATED: THE WUI IN COLORADO & COLORADO SPRINGS
RESOURCES FOR LIVING IN THE WILDLAND URBAN INTERFACE
EMERGENCY PLANNING RESOURCES
Assessing And Addressing Wildfire Risk In Colorado Springs
The Colorado Springs Fire Department began seriously addressing wildfire risk in 2000. Current Wildfire Mitigation Administrator Christina Randall quotes then Fire Chief Manny Navarro as saying, “Don’t ever let the public come back and tell me we didn’t know we lived with that risk.” During the Hayman Fire in 2002, the fire department made available for the first time to the public its Wildland Urban Interface map, which assesses risk to the lot level of residential and city property. KRCC’s Andrea Chalfin asked Randall and CSFD’s Amy Sylvester with the Wildfire Mitigation Section to go through this map. You can listen to the conversation here, and read highlights below. (Right click here to download.)
Highlights of Q & A with Christina Randall
KRCC: When the department made the map public, [Randall said] residents didn’t like that the site wasn’t password protected. Why?
CHRISTINA RANDALL: A wildfire is going to be a landscape scale event. So what you do on your property is going to impact your neighbors. And so we tell folks “I want you to spy on your neighbors.” Because if you’re green and your neighbor’s red, if you’ve done everything on your property, but your neighbor hasn’t done anything, that’s going to impact your home and your safety. So we want to deal with this on a neighborhood scale.
Also, concerns were raised over insurance companies using it to alter rates. Randall says insurance companies hire their own assessors, essentially saying, “you’re not telling us anything we don’t know.”
KRCC: When I first looked at this map, I saw a lot of red.
RANDALL: That’s the shape of the Wildland Urban Interface. It doesn’t mean that the whole area is extreme, but that’s the risk area. Basically, our WUI extends from the Air Force Academy down to NORAD. Most of it is west of I-25. We have some eastern areas around UCCS, Palmer Park, and Erindale.
KRCC: I-25 is sort of a barrier. Is that a myth?
RANDALL: It is. One of the lessons from the Tunnel Fire in the Oakland Hills ’92 was that it crossed an 8-lane freeway. So, again, we tell folks, when you have spotting and branding anywhere between a quarter and two miles, that highway’s not going to stop it. It’s certainly a place where we can make a defense, but that alone is not a fire break.
KRCC: Do you go around house by house?
RANDALL:A lot of the data is GIS driven…but there are certain features like roofs and decks that we had to collect on windshield visits. And because the risk assessment was 10 years old, we hired a fuels technician and she recently reassessed all 36,485 houses, right before Waldo.
KRCC: How can the green (low to moderate risk) be right in the middle of two high-risk lots?
RANDALL:T hat’s what’s unique about our risk assessment; it’s down to the lot level. So just looking at that parcel, again, we assess the veg density, the defensible space, and the structural characteristics, and that’s what drives your rating. So, if you’re green, but you’re next to a house that’s rated very high, maybe you should have that neighbor over for a cup of coffee, that’s all we’re saying.
KRCC: Someone isn’t necessarily going to replace his or her roof just because you ask them to, but what can you encourage individual homeowners to do?
RANDALL:When it comes time to make those home improvements, think about the wildfire risk, and the choices you can make to make it safer.
KRCC: What affect do parks and open space have in the WUI in terms of risk?
RANDALL:It certainly impacts in relation to adjacency of these neighborhoods. We’ve identified risks in these neighborhoods but part of what drives that is the adjacency of those common areas and open spaces. So in addition to the work that we do in residential areas, we also address common areas as well.
KRCC: So would it be advantageous to live next to, in terms of wildfire or risk, to live next to a park or open space?
RANDALL: It depends on the amount of fuels that are there. So if it’s open, that may allow access if firefighters need to fight the fire, but it could also pose more of a risk if you have heavier fuel-loading right up against those neighborhoods.
KRCC: So let’s look at the zoo area. That seems like a very high-risk area, just the vegetation that’s there versus what you see residentially up north, it seems more at-risk for fire. Would that be a true thought?
RANDALL: One general rule we give folks is, people ask, “What is the fire going to do? What’s the fire behavior going to be like?” And that’ll all be driven the day, depending on the weather, but the general rule is 1.5 to 3 times the height of the fuels. So if you have 100 foot trees, you can expect 300 foot flame lengths. That’s crazy, but down there, we have a lot of Doug fir, and a lot of large trees that we certainly have that type of fuel loading, and in some areas, we have overstocked stands of trees, anywhere between 150-300 trees per acre. So we know we have heavy fuel loading down there.
KRCC: Cedar Heights. That’s obviously the prime example that mitigation works. How much of the fact that that neighborhood is still standing, how much of that is because of mitigation, and how much of it is because of the way the fire moved?
RANDALL: I think a lot of it can be attributed to the mitigation work, and certainly we had a lot of crews up there. They were making a stand up there and going direct on that fire. But I talked to one of the Battalion Chiefs the morning after, cause I went up there to see for myself what really worked and what happened. And I talked to this gentleman, and he said that he goes, “Christina, it was like somebody flipped a switch. We had that flame front moving toward the community, we were ready to make a stand, they punched in a dozer line, and all of a sudden, when it hit our mitigation project area, it laid down.” And so they were able to go direct on it, and it kept it out of the housing area, and I think the firefighters saw for themselves how well that worked. And it improved safety for firefighters. That way they can go in there and make a direct attack. And so for me, I had to physically go up and see what happened. Was there slurry drops? Did they cut dozer lines? Did they burn out? And you can see where the fire, once it transitioned from the forest into that treated area, it had spotted in there, but there wasn’t enough fuels to carry it. So I could see for myself that it actually did lay down, so we know it works.
Fire Adapted Communities (FAC): Assessing Mitigation Efforts
Creating Fire Adapted Communities: A Case Study from Colorado Springs and the Waldo Canyon Fire
The Waldo Canyon fire presented the first opportunity for partners in the national Fire Adapted Communities (FAC) Coalition to collectively assess the performance of mitigation practices in Colorado Springs in a post-fire environment and to compare the results to the mitigation strategy recommended by the Fire Adapted Communities program. (Excerpt)
Fire Adapted Communities is a coalition of agencies, including the Forest Service, Department of the Interior, and the National Fire Protection Agency that assists communities living within the wildland urban interface adapt to the threat of wildfire.
The Colorado Springs Business Journal wrote a three-part series looking at wildfires in the past, examining the future, and chronicling how other areas manage their own WUIs.
The number of wildfires in Colorado has exploded during the past decade. So has the number of people living in high-risk fire zones. And public policies for dealing with both actually risk making the state’s fire danger even worse.
We analyzed data from the U.S. Census and the state, and found that one in four Colorado homes is located in a fire zone. A quarter million people have moved into the red zone in the past two decades – 100,000 of them since the state’s largest wildfire, the Hayman Fire, 10 years ago. (Excerpt)
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• Main Flash Point: Living with Wildfire page
• A Disaster Is A Disaster: The Nature Of Emergency Management
• Waldo Canyon Fire Victims: Recovering Without Rebuilding
• The Wildland Urban Interface: Where the Wilderness Meets Civilization
• The Double Bind: Forest Treatment In The Age of Megafires
• Wildfires and Climate Change Perception