Flames ripped through the pines and brush in the Dishman Hills west of Spokane Valley in July 2008, just as they’ve done for thousands of years. A dry wind pushed the fire up a hill, hotter and faster, and straight into a new development of expensive homes, destroying 13 of them and burning 1,200 acres.

The wildfire’s destruction was not surprising or unexpected. But the number of homes and residents who survived the blaze serves as a testament to smart planning, an awareness of inevitable fires, and research into the interaction of fire-prone wildlands and the growing number of people who live near them.

wildfire in Spokane County
Photo Tom Watson/Spokane County Conservation District

Although the Valley View fire in 2008 caused $50 million in property damage, it could have been worse. Several residents had implemented principles of Firewise Communities, a national program to educate landowners and communities on mitigating damage from wildfires. By thinning trees around homes and reducing fuels, a number of homeowners saved their homes. When the escape route was cut off, people knew to head to a protected ball field.

In the Spokane Valley, not far from the scene of that fire, community volunteers, firefighters, and emergency management professionals learned about the Firewise program at a workshop in May led by Guy Gifford, a forester and educator with the Washington Department of Natural Resources, WSU Extension forester Erik Sjoquist, and others.

Firewise Communities began in Washington state in 2001 after the extremely destructive fire season in 2000. It emphasizes local, easily implemented fire prevention and awareness. Firewise “is not a cookbook. It doesn’t say ‘thou shalt do this.’ It provides a framework that shows there are many ways to get to your solution and make our communities more resilient to wildfire,” says Gifford.

To illustrate the program’s success, Gifford points past the buildings. “If we just look south of here on the hillside there’s a bunch of homes that survived that wildfire three years ago,” he says. “There’s a direct correlation to home survivability with people who did this type of work.”

Encouraging homeowners and communities to think about wildfire couldn’t happen at a better time. The number and intensity of fires has increased steadily in the last decade. Millions of acres and thousands of homes have burned each year, including record-breaking blazes in 2006. The cost of wildfires runs into billions of dollars.

The Big Burn and other great fires of 1910 led to a century of fire suppression that emphasized stopping all wildfires, and consequently a hazardous amount of fuel accumulation in forests. In the dry interior west, like northeastern and central Washington, those fuels increase the intensity and frequency of fires.

Climate change contributes to the problem. The number of acres that could burn annually in the West could increase 400 to 600 percent if the average global temperature rises one degree Celsius, according to a study by the University of Washington and the U.S. Forest Service. Warmer temperatures also speed infestation of bark beetles and other tree-destroying pests that create easily combustible fuel.

At the same time, the human population around wildlands is increasing. America’s population more than tripled in the twentieth century, and more people seeking privacy and a natural setting move into what is called the wildland-urban interface, or WUI.

Matt Carroll, a professor in WSU’s Department of Natural Resources with a specialty in natural resource sociology, adds that federal agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service, have had their budgets slashed in recent years.

“You’ve got these three different things going on—fuel loading, people moving in, devolution of federal land agencies. What has resulted is a recognition that communities can no longer rely on Smokey Bear,” says Carroll.

Carroll, who has studied wildfires and community and government policy for over 15 years, characterizes the complicated situation as a “wicked problem” in which different stakeholders see fire danger as a symptom of a high-level problem, but disagree on the nature of that problem. This leads to disagreements in how to treat wildfires, distrust of public agencies, and dilemmas in management of forests.

For communities in the WUI, the problem can have very real consequences. Carroll’s latest work, with doctoral student Soren Newman, builds on the idea that communities may have specific and local ways to deal with the threat of wildfires, beyond the complexities of forestland management.

Looking at two very different regions with fire as part of their ecosystems—Flathead County, Montana, and Lee County, Florida—Carroll and Newman want to learn what it takes for communities to be resilient and, as Newman says, “What does it take for local communities to better deal with wildfire?”

Carroll and Newman use the concept of adaptive capacity, the intersection of social and material assets, to frame the research. “We talked to local fire people, public safety people, and asked them, ‘Tell us about communities in your area that are doing it well, and communities in your area that are not doing it well. Tell us about the difference,’” says Carroll.

Carroll and Newman will then take their results to other scholars who study fire and who study disasters generally and ask them to evaluate the model. They will work on ultimately finding an assessment approach across the WUI so the right resources can be directed to the right places.

It won’t necessarily be easy when many new residents of the WUI are from suburban or urban areas and, Carroll points out, may have no clue about fire. They often want the wildness and verdant, natural landscape.

As fire scholar Stephen J. Pyne writes in Fire: A Brief History, “Much of the problem … derives not from what people do but from what they elect not to do. They refuse to cut back the scrub, and often promote it. The upshot is an ecological omelette of fuels.”

Gifford and Sjoquist recognize the need to educate landowners that they can reduce fire hazard and keep their landscape looking natural.

“One of the biggest barriers is people’s conception that a Firewise home means removing all vegetation,” says Gifford. “A lot of times Firewise principles mean restoring to an open pine condition, making our forests mimic the open spaces we use to have, instead of thousands of trees per acre like we currently have in a lot of our stands.”

Sjoquist also works closely with small forest landowners to thin trees and prevent disastrous wildfires. Another of WSU Extension’s roles, says Gifford, is the science behind healthy forests. “I implement what I learn from them. They’re part of my education system to keep me current and make sure the foresters have the best and latest knowledge,” he says.

They have many other partners in the work to protect communities and homes from wildfire destruction: Idaho and Oregon extensions, conservation districts, fire districts, the U.S. Forest Service, and the forest industry.

Often, though, it comes down to communities themselves.

“We’re not interested in telling a community what to do, but rather figuring out ways for communities to have more agency for themselves,” says Carroll. “I think there’s a sweet spot between the possession of scientific, technical knowledge—how fires behave—and local and experiential knowledge from people who have lived in a place for a very long time.”

On the web

WSU Extension-Spokane, Natural Resources

Spokane County Conservation District

WSU Department of Natural Resource Sciences

Washington Department of Natural Resources

Map of WA communities at risk of wildfire (Wildland-Urban Interface): WA Department of Natural Resources, PDF

Fire prevention and information  (WA Department of Natural Resources)

Firewise USA

Large fire map (interactive): Northwest Interagency Coordination Center

Forest Fire in Washington State (essay on HistoryLink)

NASA Models Earth’s Fiery Past and Future

100 years after Big Burn, swaths of U.S. are ripe for forest fires (Nicholas K. Geranios, Idaho Statesman, Aug. 19, 2010)

Wildfire Damages to Homes and Resources: Understanding Causes and Reducing Losses (Congressional Research Report, June 02, 2008)