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.