Rethinking the WUI: Burned Homes: Are Dwellers Victims of Climate Change or Locational Sinners?

Animated gif of the Waldo Canyon Fire Perimeter Growing

I find the abstraction of WUI enormously unhelpful to many of our discussions. Especially as sometimes conveyed not that long ago.. “the wildfire problem is due to people building in the WUI.”  Then you see fires potentially coming very close to cities; Denver for the Hayman, Colorado Springs for Waldo Canyon, and then South Lake Tahoe, and actually in to Santa Rosa. Clearly people already live in the WUI. While new requirements for development would be helpful, we have to work with what we already have.

When someone write “WUI” some people are thinking (say, Colorado) McMansions in Aspen, and others mountain development with commuters to Denver, others a summer cabin near Gunnison, and others a trailer park near Florence. In no way are all those the same kind of thing, and yet, we talk about the WUI often as if it is.

These distinctions were brought to a head in my thinking by two pieces, one in High Country News and one in Harper’s.

This High Country News story’s tagline is “wildfires often hit low-income, minority communities the hardest. ”  This makes sense in the narrative “climate change hurts minorities and underserved communities the worst; wildfires are due to climate change: ergo wildfires must hurt minorities and underserved the most.”

However, there is a competing narrative “WUI people deserve what they get.” This was a view before the climate change narrative took hold. I think the underlying assumption here is that WUI landowners are not poor or minorities, and that they could choose to live somewhere else, and if they did wildfires wouldn’t be as much of a problem. Of course, in many WUI communities we can look around and see that many don’t look all that well-off. Many are in subdivisions that are cheaper due to being farther out. WUI is not equal to well-off, in many cases rather the opposite. This Brookings study talks about poverty in red and blue districts, which doesn’t tease out the WUI, but it fairly interesting.

This Harpers piece is pretty hyperbolic, and perhaps an extreme example of this view.

In other words, we as a nation pay ever-mounting bills to save a comparative handful of houses owned by people who against all sane advice choose to build in the path of catastrophe. Between 1990 and 2010, a period when we should have already known better, 2 million new homes were built in the interface. These homes don’t always appear to be on the edge of the wilderness. The entirety of Seeley Lake, a town with more than 1,700 permanent residents, is located in the WUI: the main drag with its tourist trade, the sawmill at the edge of town with its 130 workers, the cabins, trailers, frame houses, the high school, Cory’s Market, the American Legion hall, and Pop’s café.

In Manning’s view, entire towns can actually be “in” the WUI. See how confusing this is?

Such policies, however, are toxic in the current political climate of the West. One can identify a conservative here simply by mentioning wildfire and waiting for the inevitable argument: “The Forest Service needs to put these fires out.” And the Forest Service does just that, as it has done for decades. (The agency, along with other federal entities and state and local crews, extinguishes about 90 percent of the many thousands of fires that occur each year on what is called initial attack, an all-out lights-and-sirens response the moment a fire is reported.) The conservatives who populate the canyons, gulches, and dead-end roads at the fringes of Western valleys are quick to put aside their customary laments about government overreach when it comes to spending billions to protect their own redoubts.

This seems kind of silly (living in the WUI=conservative) in “the West”. It’s… Montana. If that.

This might seem harsh in light of the example of California. Last year, nine thousand structures burned in the fires around Santa Rosa, and more than a thousand around Los Angeles. These were unprecedented numbers, and most of the victims committed no sin to merit this level of punishment. Nevertheless, a video clip from Santa Rosa makes a case for severe action. A reporter for NBC is doing a stand-up in front of a charred foundation that was once a home. The scene looks as you might expect, as long as you don’t look at the backdrop: a fringe of still-green trees. This image is common enough if you know what you’re looking for. Fire scientists have collections of such images, the aftermaths of fires that level entire subdivisions but leave the trees standing and green—the flames are hot enough to ignite building materials but not the surrounding flora. These aren’t forest fires; they’re subdivision fires, running house to house, fueled by bad choices in shingles.

About 30 percent of the houses that burned in one of the Santa Rosa fires, the Tubbs fire, were outside the WUI. Not in the woods. In cities. Urban. They were set alight by the burning of houses that were in the interface. Fire scientists speak of “ladder fuels,” which carry fire from one level to the next. In this case, thousands of irresponsibly built homes were the ladder fuel that destroyed houses situated in otherwise safe areas. There’s a rude and satisfying justice in burning down the house of someone who builds in the forest, but allowing his willful ignorance to destroy those of hundreds of more responsible neighbors is a travesty.

Steady on, there Mr. Manning! Sin and punishment.. isn’t that the realm of “conservatives” and their religious allies?
Perhaps we could expand it out of the West to “there’s a rude and satisfying justice in flooding the house of someone who builds along the coast.” But I don’t think that the editors of Harper’s might be as enthusiastic about that observation. Manning’s “justice” concept raised a few eyebrows when his wife, Tracy Stone-Manning, retweeted it last year and said it was a “clarion call.” To what, I am not all that clear.

But what struck me as oddest and most unusual was not that idea. We hear less hype-y (not sin and punishment) versions of that often. It was the concept that WUI people are responsible for fires moving into town. Seems like in some cases that I have noticed, a fire is coming from the forest towards town and is fought in the WUI, decreasing the chance it will get into the city. Thinking Waldo Canyon here (see photo). Maybe others have other experiences?

If we put these two articles together, we get that some people whose houses burn in the WUI are victims of climate change. Others deserve their fate. We’re using the same word to talk about vastly different people in terms of social class, race and ethnicity, cultures, history, and their physical and biological environment. Our first step in Rethinking the WUI will be to parse out some of these differences.

8 thoughts on “Rethinking the WUI: Burned Homes: Are Dwellers Victims of Climate Change or Locational Sinners?”

  1. Thanks for posting this. After experiencing the loss of my home and my town burning in the Dixie Fire this summer, I think anywhere in the West besides the middle of San Francisco is fair game for being declared the WUI. I hate the notion that wildfires are becoming more destructive because people are building into the WUI–feels more like a dismissal of rural American culture or writing it all off as “Trump country” so urban dwellers can further distance themselves from the reality of some people’s entire livelihoods and communities burning to the ground.

  2. The idea that, ‘if there weren’t any homes there, we wouldn’t have to put those fires out’ is a stupid exercise in ‘what if?’. The ‘blame game’ is just that. A game where peoples’ homes are gambled and risked, in the hopes that a mere 50 foot ‘buffer zone’ would be enough to save someone’s property.

    If the flames are big enough to kill HUGE giant sequoias, they are big enough to burn through entire towns.

    • “… we don’t have to control extreme wildfire to keep neighborhoods from burning up,” fire physical scientist Jack Cohen said at the National Forest Foundation webinar Monday.

      I don’t think it is helpful to frame the question as who is to blame for where we are, instead of who should be responsible for where go from here. I thought about this as I drove by an isolated cabin in a forest with its “Trump won!” sign that I’m paying to protect. I like what FEMA wants to do with flood insurance: “On Friday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will incorporate climate risk into the cost of flood insurance for the first time, dramatically increasing the price for some new home buyers. Next April, most current policyholders will see their premiums go up and continue to rise by 18 percent per year for the next 20 years.”

      Also, here’s a follow-up on the Waldo Fire WUI. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to infill areas that are already at high risk. Whether those areas happen to be in a floodplain, whether they happen to be in a wildfire danger area, you know, those things need to be looked at really hard,” said Richard Smith, a concerned neighbor who said he worked for the Colorado Springs Fire Department for over 30 years. Opponents said that the project would have a negative impact on traffic, which could be dire during wildfire evacuations. (The project was rejected.)

      • Jack keeps saying that..but like I’ve said, most people think it’s suboptimal to have fires running through their community even if the houses themselves would survive OK. Evacuation is often difficult and dangerous, expecially under extreme fire conditions in which fires are moving swiftly in unexpected directions. Taking your livestock inside and staying in your fire-proof home.. I don’t think we’re there technically. It’s really not all about home ignition.

  3. Montana has the highest number in the US of residences in the wildland urban interface or WUI so that state’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation offers wildfire assessments and structure protection programs. But even government can’t always protect you from your own stupidity. Taxpayers ultimately spring for structure protection in the WUI so We the People should urge Congress to compel developers to bond every parcel for potential wildfires.

    Insurance companies have long been hesitant to raise premiums for idiots building in the WUI and along waterways swollen by human-caused climate disruptions but not any more. The former administration blamed California wildfires on the lack of logging with statements typically devoid of facts but the real culprits are arsonists, downed power lines and a warming climate.

    The feds should simply deny coverage for those who refuse to clear properties of combustibles but at least one insuror has created conditions for building in the WUI by greenwashing moral hazard in risky developments.

    • Pretending that ‘nature’ can stop human-caused wildfires is “stupidity”. Ignoring the damages of ALL California wildfires is “stupidity”. It does not matter how the fire was ignited. The damages from recent California wildfires are catastrophic, no matter how the fire was started.

        • Lightning in California has caused many of the massive wildfires. Those human ignitions cannot be easily removed from our forest environments. In fact, I’m sure there is an expected amount of human-caused wildfires throughout man’s residency in forests. One might also say that about lunatic arsonists. In every human population segment, there is sure to be some who ‘naturally’ have arsonist tendencies, due to mental health issues. We cannot suddenly impose ‘forced relocation’ on people who own their own lands in and near forests. (That did not work well, the last times it happened)

          Yes, we CAN plan for these things by managing forests to better survive droughts, bark beetles AND wildfires. Isn’t THAT a worthy goal?!?


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