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.