Homes located near or inside forests are a big complication for managing wildfires. Forest managers find themselves under increasing pressure to suppress natural fires because of the risk of nearby homes igniting.
But experts now say keeping those homes from burning could be cheaper and simpler than previously thought.
Homes in the path of wildfire do not usually ignite from flames, but from embers piling up on flammable materials like wooden roofing or pine needles trapped in gutters. Those homes could be built to be more resistant with materials and architecture that do not ignite so easily.
Using the latest trends and technology to build a fire-resistant home adds between 6 and 10 percent to the overall building cost, according to Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics. Rasker has been studying the issue along with the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety.
“So it’s not an insurmountable problem for local governments to say if you’re going to build a subdivision or a new home, and you’re going to put in a dangerous place, then we’re going to require you meet certain building codes,” Rasker said.
Most building codes have no such requirements. Yet more than a third of all U.S. homes are now in what’s known as the wildland-urban interface. And, according to Headwaters Economics, 84 percent of that wildland-urban interface remains undeveloped. That means there's a lot of potential for more homes in the path of future wildfires.
Those vulnerable homes drive up suppression costs, which topped $4 billion in 2017.
“It’s not a fire problem, it’s a community planning problem,” said Bill Hahnenberg, deputy director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service.
Hahnenberg said communities need to be adapted to fire if land managers are going to let more fire back onto the landscape to play its natural role — as they did long before those communities were built.
“That’s what we want: we have healthy forests, healthy ecosystems, fire playing its natural role. And the other part of that is we’ve got the buildup of fuels under control,” Hahnenberg said.
Losing homes when wildfire flames approach is not inevitable, said Jack Cohen, a retired scientist from the Forest Service Missoula Fire Sciences Lab.
Preventing homes from igniting when wildfire approaches would mean separating inevitable wildfires from the fire disasters of lost lives and property.
“So that raises the question: can we actually prevent home ignitions using extreme wildfires,” Cohen said. “And again: a resounding ‘Yes!’”
He and other Forest Service researchers say home ignitions can be prevented if homes are at least 100 feet from the forest edge, homes are built to be more resilient and homeowners keep them clear of pine needles and brush.
In presentations, Cohen shows photographs of these fire-resistant homes that survived while all the others in their subdivision burned. He also shows photographs of flammable homes that burned to the ground, surrounded by green vegetation that withstood the same low-intensity fire.
“We need fire agencies to tell people that we need to do this,” Cohen said. “Once that social expectation gets generated, then we start getting things cleaned up.”
Editor’s note: Reporting for this story was done during a fellowship sponsored by the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.