The WUI is Dead. Long Live the WUI: FAC Net Post by Ed Keith

I thought that this post on “the WUI is dead” was relevant, both to many discussions here (one example here) and also to the later Marshall Fire in Boulder. Shout-out to FAC Net who always posts good stuff.

The WUI, at its core, was a term meant to describe a perceived problem; now it is used to demarcate a perceived place. A short look at a few examples illustrate the issues with this shift:

The Sleepy Hollow Fire burned into Wenatchee, Washington in June of 2015, in what might have first appeared as a classic WUI fire, with a wildfire burning up to the edge of the city and igniting nearly 30 homes. As firefighters were busy fighting the fire in the Broadview neighborhood, embers from the burning homes travelled to the downtown core igniting and damaging multiple businesses. Subsequent mapping by the Washington DNR shows that this downtown area is not part of the WUI.

The Tubbs Fire burned 5,636 structures in and around Santa Rosa, California, and just over 25% of those structures were in an area too densely developed to be considered WUI, and another 4% too sparsely developed to be considered WUI. That’s over 1600 structures lost to a single wildfire that weren’t part of the WUI!

Closer to home, Deschutes County, Oregon defined a “wildfire hazard zone” that encompasses the entire County in 2003. It was just too difficult to think that an area of the county wasn’t at some level of wildfire risk. Would this zone be so all encompassing today if we tried to define WUI instead of the wildfire hazard zone? We’ll see soon as the State is due to complete the task of mapping said WUI by June of 2022.

What is in a name, indeed? At its outset, WUI was used to describe an emerging issue. Now some are more focused on deciding who is in or out of it. And what is implied by being in or out of a WUI? If you are not located within the WUI the implication I get is you don’t have to worry much about wildfire, but that may send a dangerous message, and is leading us away from using an inclusive approach that is needed for communities to begin to live with fire.

When I really start to think about it, using the term WUI oversimplifies the landscape it tries to represent, with all its complex social, political, economic and environmental issues overlaid on an ever changing geography. It implies there are areas in our communities without any risk, it allows us (from residents to decision-makers) to point the finger of blame and transmission at “others” or those who live somewhere else, and our obsession over mapping it perfectly keeps us from dealing with the real issues of adaptation and resilience our communities face.

The WUI may work, albeit imperfectly, as a concept, but it’s not meant to be a geographical place. The WUI isn’t a place at all, it is a set of conditions, and the more we try to define it and map it, the more we’ll have to disagree about.

I submit that it is time to sweep the term WUI to the curb, admit that the issues we’re trying to solve are more complex than something that can be captured in three words, and get back to work restoring our forests and rangelands, improving our wildfire response and continually adapting our communities to the fire adapted ecosystems we are all living in. The WUI is dead. Long live the WUI.

9 thoughts on “The WUI is Dead. Long Live the WUI: FAC Net Post by Ed Keith”

  1. “Urban” isn’t useful in describing many rural areas, my own included. “Wildland” doesn’t describe many areas that have burned in recent years. But at least WUI is pronounceable.

  2. I think that around every WUI area, there should be another zone (of public lands), where fuels management is intensive, where practical. The zones would be created and managed to be fire resilient under current environmental laws. If a fire should start in such a zone, it should be suppressed immediately. If a fire burns into that zone, it should be attacked as safely as possible. The mapping of such a zone should be based on many factors, including human values and preferences. There would also be a need for specific plans to create and maintain such a zone.

    Just consider it to be a ‘buffer zone’ for communities and their surroundings.

  3. I think I pretty much agree with Larry. At least with regard to the public lands, it is definitely a place, with characteristics that will likely lead it be managed differently from other places, which requires putting it on a map. “WUI” may not be the best name for that place. (How about “human encroachment zone?” 🙂 )

    • How about “Public Encroachment Zone,” or “PEZ?”

      I still remain curious about who first invented and began using “WUI.” Is that more like “outskirts” or “rural?” I’m guessing early computer jocks, worried about keystrokes more than communication. Other thoughts?

      And when and why did our public forests and rangelands ever become “wildlands?” I’ve never heard actual people or local residents use that term the way academics and agencies do. Mostly it has seemed like a changing of common terms and inventions of acronyms have become the “government speak” of a new generation of forestry professionals, further separating them from the affected general public. In my experience.

      • National forests are for the public, so maybe Infrastructure Encroachment Zone (though not as catchy as “PEZ”).

        It turns out Google does history. (You like history, right Bob?) And you’re right that its roots are academic.

        “The WUI concept was formally introduced in 1987 Forest Service Research budget documents but was not acknowledged as a major component for federal fire management until the 2000 National Fire Plan. Although the 1987 introduction was meant to increase research focus on demographic factors influencing fire and other
        resource management, its California roots can be traced to post-World War II civil defense concerns about fire and water.”

        • Jon, we have tons of WUI without forests at all, and certainly without National Forests – so are you thinking we need a separate term? s

          • My point is that the presence of human-created “values at risk” changes the way some federal lands are managed, and where those lands are and how management would be changed are things that should be discussed with the public as part of making those kinds of long-term management decisions – in a forest plan. By Planning Rule definition this is a “management area,” but a common name for it might be helpful. It would probably have to be reconciled with the WUI definition already used in federal statutes, but I’m not sure it has to be the same areas.

      • The term WUI originated in the 1987 USFS budget proposal in a small grant request to study what populated areas would be most at risk to wildfire in the case of a mass fire event originating from a nuclear attack. I think precision of language is important. We have a ton of words to describe stand dynamics and characteristics of forests (Trees per acre-TPA, Stand Density Index-SDI, Quadratic Mean Diameter-QMD, Basal Area-BA, Site Index-SI, Torching Index – TI, Canopy Cover- CC, Canopy Base Height – CBH, Diameter at Breast Height- DBH, etc.). Are those terms “government speak” from highfalutin silviculturalists or the way that forestry professionals speak so as to say precisely what they mean. Although, maybe “the area by where Johny lives where there are trees and stuff” sounds better than WUI.

        • Thanks Jon and PatrickF: I had a vague memory that the acronym originated in California academia in the late 1980s, so do appreciate the clarification. And yes, I should have thought about Google.

          PartrickF, I have worked with “forestry professional” for more than 50 years and DBH is, indeed, a common term. A couple of the others are often used in correspondence or texts, but I’ve rarely heard them actually spoken. The others are new to me — quite possibly because I avoid that type of communication or because maybe they’ve only been adopted recently or only have occasional uses.

          And yes, to me, “the area where Johny lives where there are trees and stuff” does SOUND better than “WUI.” Although they likely have different meanings (depending where Johny lives, mostly). I can see why you use a pseudonym.


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