While more than 1,000 homes across the West burn each year in forest and brush fires, only a fraction of federal efforts to reduce fire danger in the region has been concentrated in the communities at greatest risk, a group of scientists found.
The scientists analyzed a database containing the locations of all 44,613 fuel-reduction projects undertaken in Western states by various federal agencies under the National Fire Plan from its start in 2000 through 2008. They found that only 3 percent of those projects were within what is known as the wildland-urban interface.
Wildland-urban interface is a term for areas where suburban and rural homes meet forests and rangelands. The National Fire Plan is a program that is intended to reduce the risk of wildfire to communities.
The scientists found that 11 percent of those fuel-reduction projects were within an area that includes the wildland-urban interface plus a 1.5-mile buffer strip around it.
That is far short of the 50 percent goal set by the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003, which was supposed to help control the $1 billion regularly spent each year fighting wildfires.
Wildfires burned 5.3 million acres in the U.S. in 2008.
"We're going to have to adapt to these large fires as a way of life," said Tania Schoennagel, a fire ecologist at the University of Colorado and lead author of the study, appearing in Tuesday's edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"Fire suppression is doing an outstanding job, but there is only so much they can do," she said. "So we are probably going to continue to have more home losses unless we have communities more adapted to fire."
That means helping homeowners fireproof their homes by clearing trees and brush around them and using building materials that don't burn, such as metal roofs, she said.
"With crime, we lock our doors and we get a security system," she said. "With earthquakes, quake-proof construction is required in earthquake zones. We are not allowed to build in 100-year flood plains.
"But with wildfire, it's different. We don't lock our homes down to fire."
From 2002 through 2006, 10,000 homes nationwide were destroyed by wildfire, the study noted.
Joe Walsh, a spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service, said the agency had just received the report and was still reviewing it: "Once that review is finished, we'll have a comment."
The study found that federal agencies working under the National Fire Plan have a tough job because they control only 17 percent of the land in the West's wildland-urban interface. Private land covers 71 percent.
"Our results suggest the need for a significant shift in fire policy emphasis from federal to private lands, if protection of communities and private property in the wildland-urban interface remains a primary goal," the authors wrote.
Meanwhile, studies indicate that longer and hotter summers connected to global warming are behind the increasing number and intensity of wildfires, which hit nearly 10 million acres nationwide in 2006.
Embers are big factor
Schoennagel noted that research at the Forest Service's Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory in Montana has found that most homes that burn in wildfires are ignited by falling embers, sometimes from far away, showing that thinning forests and cutting brush on public lands is not enough.
Scott Stephens, associate professor of fire science at the University of California at Berkeley, said he was surprised by the findings, given the hot debate over reducing fire danger in communities.
Stephens agreed that more needs to be done on private land, particularly by homeowners who fail to clear trees and brush around their homes or build with materials that are less likely to burn.
"No fuel treatment on federal lands adjacent to the WUI (wildland-urban interface) will keep fire out," he said. "Even if we treat those areas, you're still going to have embers and sparks flying."
Those embers can start a house on fire by landing on a shake roof or wooden deck, in gutters filled with dry leaves or pine needles, or on a woodpile stacked next to the house.
Andy Stahl, director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, a conservation group, said the $2 billion spent under the National Fire Plan since 2000 has failed to reduce the number of acres burned by wildfires, the homes destroyed or the firefighters killed.
He noted that most of the homes that burn each year are in California, and are in chaparral, rather than forests.
The study was funded by the National Academy of Sciences, the Wilburforce Foundation, and a Smith fellowship, Schoennagel said.