The 2015 fire season was worse than any on record, and summertime temperatures are steadily escalating. Increasing the average summer temperature by just 1 degree Fahrenheit results in an increase of 420 wildfires in the state annually, according to estimates by the Oregon Department of Forestry. Research and news articles have focused on the need for forest fuels reduction, creating defensible space around rural dwellings and improving firefighting methods. However, effective land-use planning has perhaps the greatest potential for reducing wildfire threat.
The USDA Forest Service defines transition areas just outside communities as the “wildland-urban interface.” Since 1960, the population in these areas has jumped from 25 million to 140 million people. Today, about 60 percent of all new homes across the nation are being constructed in the wildland-urban interface, despite one historic wildfire season after another. The result is skyrocketing firefighting costs that are ultimately borne by the public.
The Oregon Department of Forestry estimates that the average cost of $319 to protect an additional home in an already developed area jumps to a whopping $31,545 to protect an additional home in a more rural area.
Dwellings in remote and rural areas put firefighters at added risk. Historically trained in basic wildland fire behavior and safety, using fireline construction and tools, firefighters today must have numerous specialized skills geared toward protecting homes — establishing fire perimeters, conducting burnouts around homes and dealing with the dangers of propane tanks, gas and electrical lines. When the focus has shifted from fighting fire to saving homes, forests are left to burn.
Oregon’s statewide land-use planning program discourages the kind of development that imperils firefighters and homes in this way. Implemented by communities statewide, it has significantly reduced the number of dwellings built in our wildland-urban interface since the mid-1980s, when compared to other states. While over the course of a decade Oregon lost almost three times as much acreage to wildfire as did Washington, the number of dwellings destroyed was significantly greater in Washington, according to the Geographic Area Coordination Centers and the National Interagency Fire Center. In the 2014 and 2015 seasons alone, seven times more dwellings were destroyed in Washington than in Oregon. The presence of dwellings in wildland areas further increases the risk of wildfire. In the 2015 fire season four times as many acres burned in Washington as in Oregon where wildland dwellings resulted in fires with “human causes.”
Over 9 percent of Oregon’s homes are currently at high or extreme risk for wildfire, according to 2015 data from Verisk Insurance Solutions. Current limits on dwellings and other development on forest land is paying off for Oregon by minimizing wildfire risk to new development, reducing firefighting costs, and protecting human lives.