Experts say it’s time to think beyond battling wildfires — and find a way to live with them

By Nicholas Gerbis
Published: Wednesday, September 21, 2022 - 4:47am
Updated: Wednesday, September 21, 2022 - 9:02am

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The Contreras Fire in southern Arizona has burned more than 20,000 acres.

Wildfires are growing more frequent and severe, and wildfire season has lengthened by almost three months since the late-1970s.

“Currently, at the federal level, through the land management agencies — primarily the U.S. Forest Service — we're spending $65 million per wildfire, which is doubling the cost since 1999,” said Kimi Barrett, a wildfire and policy analyst with Headwaters Economics, a nonpartisan independent research organization based in Bozeman, Montana.

Kimi Barrett is a wildfire and policy analyst with Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Montana.

Multiply that by the almost 59,000 wildfires in 2021 — almost 1,800 of which occurred in Arizona.

Experts say it’s time to think beyond battling these inevitable blazes and find a way to live with them.

“We do indeed know how to do things much, much better,” said Barrett. “We know how to reduce risks to homes and neighborhoods and, in effect, create communities better adapted to increasing wildfire risks.”

Barrett said wildfires play a vital ecological role, yet people see them as disasters when they affect communities.

“They’re a process our landscapes have adapted to over millennia. And so, they are supposed to be there,” she said.

Experts can’t always forecast when wildfires will occur, but nature provides a virtual roadmap of where many will strike.

“These wildfires are predictable; the areas in which they burn — it's usually the same areas over and over and over again,” said Erica Fischer, a civil and construction engineer at Oregon State University who specializes in making structural systems more resilient to natural and man-made hazards.

The past may be prologue, but that doesn’t stop droves of people from building communities in the wildland-urban interface, or WUI.

“In fact, the WUI is the fastest-growing land-use type in the lower 48 states, with more than one and three homes now located in these wildfire-prone landscapes,” said Barrett.

Erica Fischer is a civil and construction engineer at Oregon State University. She specializes in making structural systems more resilient to natural and human-caused hazards.

Houses as hazards

Wildfires have destroyed 120,000 buildings in the U.S. since 2005.

Yet, thanks in part to expedited planning procedures, construction in burned areas grew more than 60% over the past two decades.

Once built, those structures only add to the danger and damage potential of wildfires.

“Wildfire is one of the only hazards where the burning of homes itself intensifies the hazard,” said Fischer.

Houses supply fires with abundant fuel that burns longer than vegetation does. Structure fires also can spawn floating firebrands that ignite distant buildings.

What’s more, the resulting smoke holds perhaps hundreds of potentially toxic compounds.

“We’re now talking about TVs and refrigerators and dishwashers and all of that, and we are starting to be more and more concerned with contamination,” said Fernando Rosario-Ortiz, an environmental engineer at University of Colorado Boulder.

The risks posed by such substances vary and depend on factors like quantity and exposure.

“Now, a lot of these compounds, we're not expecting to be toxic; but it points to the complexity of the issue and how we need to do more work associated with it,” said Rosario-Ortiz.

Water woes

During fires, plastic service pipes buried in heated ground can leach carcinogenic benzene into water distribution systems, which can become contaminated by ash or other materials when a system experiences negative pressure.

Farther afield, noxious substances can deposit across watersheds that sustain two-thirds of U.S. cities.

“These are the same areas that are prone to fires, and these fires can abruptly and adversely impact these watersheds,” said Rosario-Ortiz. “The effects can be quite complex and long-lasting.”

In fact, they can persist for five to 10 years.

In some cases, pollutants can linger in the snow pack, only to return during the spring thaw.

“The fire happened one day; the next day, we had a significant snow event,” said Rosario-Ortiz. “Once you have that melting of the snow, we've been sampling some of the surface waters, and you start to see compounds such as benzene.”

As rains fall on slopes destabilized by fire, they wash ash, nutrients, metals and organic carbon into rivers and reservoirs. The ensuing changes in water chemistry and cloudiness create new purification problems.

Nutrients entering a reservoir ecosystem can boost algae growth, adversely affecting some fish. Inorganic metals can accumulate until they reach toxic levels. Organic carbon can affect disinfection byproducts – EPA-regulated compounds formed during the water disinfection process.

“Once you start having the rain events immediately after the fire or afterwards, you start to see the mobilization of these materials that eventually will make it into rivers and reservoirs,” said Rosario-Ortiz.

Fernando Rosario-Ortiz is, an environmental engineer at University of Colorado Boulder. His research specializes in the impact of wildfires on water quality.

Meanwhile, holding the affected communities together takes more than a few truckloads of bottled water.

Building resilience

“It’s not just the burning of the structures themselves that is the loss to the community. These institutions play roles within the community that are very critical to recovery,” said Fischer.

To weather tough times, communities need places where their members can work, learn and get healthcare.

They need a tax base, too.

But experts say true resilience also requires overcoming deep-seated problems like systemic racism, poverty, health disparities and language gaps.

“Passing the building code – that’s almost the easy part. But then, how do we address all these socially vulnerable communities and help them actually have hazard mitigation that will work?” said Fischer.

Disasters affect various community members differently. Barrett says families and households living in poverty may lack adequate housing, homeowner’s insurance or the ability to evacuate.

Wildfires also can worsen many health conditions linked to age, race and income. And language, cultural and institutional barriers can hinder efforts to apply for recovery aid or to receive outreach materials for evacuation and planning.

“Centuries of systemic racism can make it more difficult to trust the institutions and agencies offering these services,” said Barrett, adding that it’s time to envision “a community growing alongside inevitable, increasing risk.”

“In other words, anticipating a wildfire before it occurs and integrating mitigation strategies into the development framework,” she said.

Examples include specially designed neighborhoods, fire-shielded infrastructure and houses hardened against fires with fiber-cement siding or asphalt composition shingles.

“Here in the intermountain west, it's a 2% difference,” said Barrett. “In fact, you actually save money, because some of these wildfire-resistant materials are going to be cheaper with longer durability.”

She added that such efforts can benefit the community as a whole.

“Every dollar spent on upfront wildfire mitigation within the WUI saves $4 in long-term costs,” she said.

The Tujunga Hotshots dig fire line to stop the spread of the Pipeline Fire
U.S. Forest Service
The Tujunga Hotshots dig fire line to stop the spread of the Pipeline Fire on June 12, 2022.

Shifting perspectives

In short, experts say it’s time to start treating wildfires as foregone conclusions and to begin building communities capable of coexisting with them.

Getting there will mean overcoming anti-regulation sentiment, coordinating across jurisdictions large and small, and injecting sizable sums of federal and state funding.

“We need to start thinking about the ‘urban’ within the ‘wildland urban interface.’ And, right now, the inertia within us is to think that we can look at the forest and solve our way out of this,” said Barrett.

But changing minds, practices and regulations can make for a slow, frustrating slog. It often seems like, for every fire-resilient bright spot like Portola Valley, California, or Summit County, Colorado — both of which passed ordinances to control household flammable materials — there’s a wet blanket committed to smothering change.

Some communities have grown tired of waiting for the winds to shift.

In anti-regulatory Texas, for example, Austin has acted on its own to adopt the International Wildland-Urban Interface Code, a sets of basic regulations designed to protect life and property from wildfires and to stop structure fires from spreading to wildland fuels.

“Some of these actions are being done at a smaller scale, because they're not going to wait for the state to take action,” said Barrett.

Meanwhile, Fischer says it’s a mistake to focus too much on climate change. Though its effects worsen wildfires, she says such a gigantic problem can leave people feeling powerless and mask other factors at play.

“A lot of communities feel disheartened in that they don't have a role to play — or they can't do anything about it, or they can't help themselves — if it's only due to climate change,” she said. “We are in this situation mainly because of our forest response practices and our fire suppression practices over the last 100 years.”

Ultimately, Barrett and Fischer remain hopeful.

They point to urban planning changes that effectively ended the ruinous infernos that once afflicted cities like San Francisco, and note more recent successes in making communities more resilient to earthquakes, floods and tsunamis.

“We’ve solved this before from an urban planning perspective. We can apply those same principles, those same lessons, now to the wildland-urban interface,” said Barrett.

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