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Fire Chronicle #2  Laura McCarthy, Forest Trust
 Oct 17, 2001 12:08 PDT 
Number 2
October 17, 2001


The National Fire Plan has a dual focus on restoring fire-adapted
ecosystems and protecting life and property in the wildland-urban
interface. Much of the scrutiny of fire plan implementation has centered
on the question of how much funding is going to projects in
wildland-urban interfaces. Congressional leaders are interested in the
interface zone as the most effective area in which to focus fire risk
reduction activities to protect life and property. Environmentalists
view the interface zone as a buffer between wildlands, where
fire-adapted management strategies are used, and populated areas, where
fire is prevented and suppressed. Former Forest Service Chief, Mike
Dombeck, suggested that the fire plan should concentrate on reducing the
fire risk in forests near homes because of the political consensus that
life and property should be protected. Speaking in June at a conference
on creating a fire-adapted society, Dombeck pointed out that a
"timber-fight" will almost assuredly break out over hazardous fuel
reduction in wildlands. He suggested that it makes practical sense to
develop wildland-urban interface fire risk management policy separately
from policy to restore fire-adapted ecosystems in the wildlands.

The greater the emphasis on confining projects to the wildland-urban
interface -- in terms of funding and priority -- the more important the
definition of the term becomes. The 2001 Interior Appropriation Bill
directed the agencies to "increase the amount of fuel reduction
treatments in high fire risk urban wildland interface areas,"
underscoring the importance of the wildland-urban interface definition
in determining how funding is allocated and how priorities are set. The
Departments of Interior and Agriculture proposed a definition in the
January 4, 2001 Federal Register that was derived from a definition
created by the Western States Fire Managers. The definition identified
two categories of interface for the agencies to focus on; interface
communities where structures directly abut wildland fuels and intermix
communities where structures are scattered throughout a wildland area.
The agencies solicited public input about how the definition should be
used to set priorities and to identify high fire risk interface and
intermix communities.

Janet Anderson-Tyler, the Forest Service's national fire plan
coordinator for Community Assistance and Cooperative Fire Protection,
reported that comments on the federal register definition did not
register significant opposition and that the definition would remain
unchanged. But within the Forest Service, the definition is not proving
entirely satisfactory, because the Southwest Region (R-3) has adopted
its own definition of wildland-urban interface in the form of a regional
supplement to the Forest Service Manual. Region 3's definition expands
the wildland-urban interface to encompass not only structures "but also
the continuous slopes and fuels that lead directly to the sites,
regardless of the distance involved." To implement risk reduction
treatments in their expanded view of the interface zone, Region 3 is
proposing to amend its forest plans to lift management restrictions for
Mexican spotted owl and northern goshawk habitat in wildland-urban
interfaces. The other western Forest Service regions are currently using
the federal register definition.

The General Accounting Office, in their review of fire plan
implementation, highlighted problems with the application of the federal
register definition of wildland-urban interface. The GAO found that when
the Forest Service issued guidance in February 2001 to further the
development of a national list of high-risk communities, the agency
cited the federal register definition of wildland-urban interface, but
did not apply that definition to national forest system lands. The GAO
noted that since the Forest Service "did not specifically identify
federal lands that are at high risk from wildland fire," it was
difficult for the states to identify wildand-urban interface communities
within the vicinity of such lands. The GAO concluded, "without this
definition and with the criteria and risk factors subject to broad
interpretation by the states, the list of at-risk communities ballooned
to over 22,000." At this point, the process of identifying high-risk
communities ceased to yield meaningful results.

As implementation of the national fire plan proceeds, the lack of
agreement on a wildland-urban interface definition has become a barrier
to accountability. Without consistent application of a definition of
wildland-urban interface it will be difficult, if not impossible, to
assess whether or not the appropriated funds have gone to high fire risk
areas as Congress specified. For example, Congress asked the Forest
Service to report the acres it has treated with fire monies in FY2001.
If wildland-urban interface is defined as narrowly as it is in the
federal register definition (limited to acres with structures) then the
total acreage treated will go down, thereby making the agencies appear
less successful. Furthermore, acres as a unit of measure will not
describe the effectiveness of treatments in achieving the goal of
protecting human life and structures; 5 acres treated in a suburban
development will probably protect more lives and property than 500 acres
treated in a wildland.

Defining the wildland-urban interface is further complicated by the
tendency to lump together two different objectives: (1) reducing the
wildfire threat to human life and structures and (2) restoring
fire-adapted ecosystems. Achieving these objectives will require
different policies, strategies, and actions. A workable wildland-urban
interface definition is a potential tool to clarify and distinguish the
two objectives on the ground, and thus to set the stage for more
effective means to meet both ends.

FIRE CHRONICLE is edited by the Forest Trust. We welcome your comments
about the issue of defining the wildland-urban interface, as well as
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 send a message to
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