Fire Chronicle #13
Laura McCarthy, Forest Trust
Oct 10, 2002 09:55 PDT
FIRE CHRONICLE: Stories of the National Fire Plan
October 10, 2002
WILDLAND URBAN INTERFACE DEFINITION
NEEDED FOR EFFECTIVE POLICY
Two of the four hazardous fuel reduction bills before the U.S. House of
Representatives this week proposed legislative definitions of “wildland
urban interface” as part of their programs to reduce the threat of
catastrophic wildfire. A specific definition is important to the
development and implementation of federal policy that clearly addresses
the complementary objectives of reducing the wildfire threat to human
life and property and restoring fire-adapted ecosystems. The exact
wording of the definition is critical because these treatments will have
a visible and lasting impact on forests and communities.
However, legislative action to alleviate the threat of wildfire to
communities should not be held up by the search for a “perfect”
definition of wildland urban interface. Information about the effects of
existing wildland urban interface definitions is available, and policy
makers should use this information when they select words to put into
The Southwest Region of the U.S. Forest Service has adopted a broad
definition of wildland urban interface for New Mexico and Arizona.
Looking at the impacts of this definition on the ground illustrates some
of the problems that can arise when open-ended definitions are applied.
The Southwest Region wildland urban interface definition, as specified
in a regional supplement to the Forest Service Manual (dated December
22, 2000), is:
“Areas of resident populations at imminent risk from wildfire, and human
developments having special significance. These areas may include
critical communications sites, municipal watersheds, high voltage
transmission lines, observatories, church camps, scout camps, research
facilities, and other structures that if destroyed by fire, would result
in hardship to communities. These areas encompass not only the sites
themselves, but also the continuous slopes and fuels that lead directly
to the sites, regardless of the distance involved.”
Including “continuous slopes and fuels that lead directly to the sites,
regardless of the distance involved” in the definition made it extremely
difficult for the Region to prioritize wildland urban interface projects
for maximum community benefit under the National Fire Plan. Following is
a selection of 6 wildland urban interface projects in NM and AZ that
were among 144 projects prioritized by the Forest Service to receive
funding for hazardous fuel reduction treatment in fiscal year 2001.
Santa Fe Watershed: 7,000-acre fuel reduction treatment in the
Santa Fe municipal watershed serving 65,000 people. The treatments are
in the portion of the watershed that is adjacent to development within
the city limits and no treatment is planned for the majority of the
watershed that falls within the Pecos Wilderness Area. The ratio of
acres treated to population served is 1:9.
Fort Valley: 1,700-acre fuel reduction treatment outside of
Flagstaff, AZ, population 50,000. The project is 5 miles beyond the city
and is considered a wildland urban interface treatment because it is
within Flagstaff’s viewshed. The ratio of acres treated to population
served is 1:29.
Gallinas Watershed: 450-acre fuel reduction treatment is in an
area that provides surface water to Las Vegas, NM, population 20,000.
The ratio of acres treated to population served is 1:44.
Thompson Ridge: 83-acre treatment to create fuel breaks around
a rural subdivision with 300 homes, most of which are seasonally
occupied. The ratio of acres treated to population served is 1:4.
Lama-Questa Wildland Urban Interface: 550-acre fuel reduction
treatment directly adjacent to the community of Lama, NM, population
150, and 5 miles downwind of Questa, population 2,000. The Lama
Neighborhood Association has unsuccessfully requested the treatment be
limited to 50 acres and a one-quarter mile zone around the community.
The ratio of acres treated to population served is 2:1.
Chaparral: 700-acre fuel reduction treatment in Sandoval
County, NM in an area whose only structures exist at a seasonally
occupied girl scout camp.
These examples illustrate the variety of fuel reduction projects taking
place under the Southwest Region’s broad wildland urban interface
definition. The benefit of these projects to communities varies widely.
For example, in the Gallinas Watershed, every acre treated will benefit
44 people and will protect a municipal surface water supply. The Santa
Fe Watershed project also protects a municipal water supply, and its
geographic location will protect urban properties along the national
forest boundary. However, the Gallinas Watershed project concentrates
its treatment in a narrow geographic area, providing a much higher per
acre benefit than the treatment in the Santa Fe Watershed, which will
treat a larger area. The Thompson Ridge project provides a contrast to
both of these watershed examples, where every acre treated will benefit
3 primarily seasonal households.
Each wildland urban interface project, no matter how small, has
supportive constituents who will benefit directly from the treatment.
The challenge is to set meaningful priorities to reduce wildfire risk
across the nation and to bring immediate relief to the greatest number
of people. The 2002 wildfire season made a compelling case for the
urgency of action and illustrated that new policies are needed to
expedite fuel treatment. However, as the examples above illustrate, a
policy that uses a broad definition of wildland urban interface will not
promote an orderly sequencing of fuel reduction projects to reduce the
threat of catastrophic wildfire in the short-term.
FIRE CHRONICLE is edited by the Forest Trust and written by Laura Falk
McCarthy, Forest Protection Program Director. The Forest Trust welcomes
your comments, stories, and observations about how the national fire
plan is being implemented (just send a reply message and it will go to
the list moderator). To subscribe to FIRE CHRONICLE go to
http://www.topica.com/lists/firechronicles/ or send an email message to
FOR MORE INFORMATION visit the Forest Trust web site. Other recent
publications by the Forest Trust, including the September report “A
Comparison of Two Government Reports on Factors Affecting Timely Fuel
Treatment Decisions,” are available http://www.theforesttrust
PAST ISSUES OF FIRE CHRONICLE can be downloaded from
1. 2002 Fire Plan Appropriations will Benefit from 2001 Experience
2. Wildland-Urban Interface Definition a Barrier to Accountability
3. Stewardship Blocks: Innovative Tool Brings Fire Plan Benefits into
4. Youth Training Needed for Fire Plan to Benefit Local Workforce
5. Grants Get National Fire Plan Money into Communities
6. Collaborative Forest Restoration Program Creates New Solution to
7. Permits Regulate Prescribed Burning On Private Land
8. Accountability Remains a Key Issue for National Fire Plan
9. National Partnership Advances Landscape-Scale Forest Restoration
10. Poor Communities Most Threatened By Wildfire
11. A New Model To Fire-Proof Forest Homes
12. Consensus Over Fuel Reduction Treatment Dissolves
COMMUNITY STEWARDSHIP COMMUNICATOR is an electronic bulletin that
provides information about the national Community Stewardship
Collaborative’s effort to find solutions to issues related to
large-scale watershed projects on the national forests and the National
Fire Plan. The bulletin is prepared by the Pinchot Institute for
Conservation and is available by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org