Wildfire safety fuels hot debate; as more people move into wildland-urban interface, firefighting challenges increase

When a wildfire is rolling toward a house built with a cedar shake roof, surrounded by decorative juniper up to the windowsills, and the only access road is overgrown and narrow, firefighters will likely skip it.

“People think that we’re going to save their house,” said Paul Tester, Southwest Washington’s fire training coordinator at the state Department of Natural Resources. “We’re there to protect the firefighter and the public, that’s our first priority.

“We can rebuild a home, the trees will grow back. I can’t rebuild you.”

As more people build homes in spots where civilization mingles with the wild, firefighters may have to make those calls more often. In Southwest Washington’s now-regrown Yacolt Burn area, where one of the state’s largest wildfires tore through the region more than 100 years ago, people have built an estimated 800 homes, according to local assessors’ offices.

Researchers with the University of Wisconsin and U.S. Forest Service have found that about a third of all homes in the continental United States sit in what’s called the wildland-urban interface — a higher-risk fire area where homes and wild lands mix. Those homes housed an estimated 99 million people nationwide, the researchers said.

The wildland-urban interface area constitutes about 10 percent of the Lower 48. The number of homes in the risk area increased by about 8.5 million, or 24 percent, from 1990 to 2010. Since then, that number has likely increased, according to researchers and fire managers.

Wildfires destroyed almost 5,000 structures nationally in 2015, including more than 2,600 homes, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

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