Areas where homes meet the wilderness are increasing, as we build more and more in the West. These areas, known as wildland urban interfaces, are worrisome to firefighters. It’s here where fires pose the most danger to homes and buildings, people, and ultimately firefighters.
That’s why researchers at Washington State University set out to see how land-use restrictions could affect the risk of potential wildfires. They looked at one community in particular, Flathead County, Mont.
Flathead County is a rural area — only about 6 percent of its land is developed. It’s right next to Glacier National Park. According to county statistics, Flathead County is the third most populated county in the state and is fast growing — making it a good example of the wildland urban interface.
“You can be in a portion of Flathead County and be as rural as you would expect anywhere in the Northwest, but you can also be up by Whitefish and be around one of the early financiers of Google,” said study author Travis Paveglio in a news release.
Paveglio designed a computer model to predict Flathead County’s wildfire risks up to 2059. He took development trends, climate change, and wildfire patterns into account. He then looked at what types of losses people would face from those wildfires.
Paveglio found that if land use policies stayed as the were in 2010, and the land continued to be developed, residential losses would increase 17-fold by 2059. That adds up to more than $79 million for one county. (The county updated some of its land use policies in 2012, but the study was already underway.)
Under moderately restrictive land use policies, Paveglio found a 10-fold increase in wildfire risk. He found a nine-fold increase in wildfire risk with a highly restrictive land use policy.
The different scenarios included:
The amount of new housing in areas with different density;
The types of development near environmentally sensitive areas, like wetlands or streams;
How far houses were setback from water bodies;
No development on the 100-year floodplain, most public land, and areas with at least a 30 percent slope.
“This is an effective first step in showing that land-use policies can help,” he said. “Now we need to explore how much fire-specific policies contribute to reducing residential losses.”
Paveglio said his study only really applies to Flathead County, but the model could be applied to other areas in the West.
— Courtney Flatt
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