Forest projects aimed at wildfire protection misdirected, study says

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With the federal government spending nearly $3 billion trying to reduce the impact of fire in national forests, a new academic study suggests the bulk of the work is being done in precisely the wrong places.

Researchers at the University of Colorado found that only 11% of so-called fuel-reduction projects in the last five years are undertaken where increasing numbers of Westerners are living: in that alluring landscape on the edge of suburbia that fire officials call the urban-wild land interface.

Despite the fact that the National Fire Plan calls for special emphasis on thinning forests in or near the interface areas, the paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concludes that Americans living in fire-prone areas are not beneficiaries of the same fire protection projects as back country forests.


‘We were very surprised by our results,’ said Tania Schoennagel, lead researcher. ‘It’s a problem. I think we need more targeting of the wild land urban interface in terms of mitigating fire. It’s more effective if you are near communities. The public has the impression that a lot of acres are being treated, so there’s a sense that a lot is getting done.’

The Forest Service’s analysis last year, however, cataloged 15 million acres of public land in the urban-wild land fringe that had been treated for ‘hazardous fuels reduction and landscape restoration’ since 2001, compared with about 29 million acres outside the interface: roughly a 1:2 ratio. The study also included Department of Interior lands.

The University of Colorado team of geographers, fire ecologists and landscape ecologists examined more than 44,000 federally funded fuel-reduction projects in 11 western states between 2004 and 2008. It is the first analysis to systematically juxtapose the Forest Service’s cutting and clearing with communities and subdivisions. The researchers concluded that only 3% of the projects took place in the interface as strictly defined. An additional 8% of the work occurred within 1.5 miles of the interface, an area the team defined as a ‘buffer.’

Complicating the best intentions of federal fire managers to clear forest land, the study revealed that about 70% of the property in the interface is privately owned and beyond the jurisdictional reach of the U.S. Forest Service.

‘It’s an odd situation when you step back from it,’ Schoennagel said. ‘The Forest Service is in charge of fire suppression and protecting homes, yet that agency has no jurisdiction over requiring fire-wise homes and landscaping.’

Schoennagel noted that projects undertaken in interface zones are three to four times more expensive than those in remote areas. With 15% of the West’s interface already developed, Schoennagel said, ‘If we really want to control fire risk, I think we really have to control development in the wild land urban interface.’

-- Julie Cart

Photo: Flames threaten a home in Santa Barbara County’s Mission Canyon area last month. Credit: Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times