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Research / Discovery

Fire-mitigation work in U.S. West is misplaced, CSU/CU study suggests

June 9, 2009

Only 11 percent of National Fire Plan wildfire-mitigation efforts in the last five years have occurred near people's homes or offices, according to a new study co-authored by Dave Theobald, a Colorado State University associate professor in the Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources.

Too far from wildland-urban interface

The National Fire Plan is a long-term federal fuels-reduction program aimed at reducing the risks of catastrophic wildfire to communities.

The finding is significant because it shows that, as more Americans live in or near fire-prone forests and more wildfires burn, most federally funded activities to reduce fuels and wildfire hazard have occurred far from the “wildland-urban interface” -- the area prioritized by federal wildfire policies.

The result suggests that federal treatments are minimally effective at mitigating the threat of wildfire to homes and people in the western United States.

Recommendations

The study also suggests that future fire-mitigation strategies should:

  • emphasize constructing and maintaining “firewise” homes
  • restricting the abundance and configuration of residential housing units near wildlands susceptible to fire
  • improving cooperation among private and public landowners in implementing fire-mitigation treatments and in paying for fire suppression

“Our comprehensive analysis suggests that fire-mitigation treatments do not effectively target the wildland-urban interface,” says Tania Schoennagel, lead researcher and a scientist in CU’s geography department.

Schoennagel led a team of researchers, including CSU's Dave Theobald, who examined 44,000 federally funded wildfire-mitigation projects in 11 western states between 2004 and 2008. 

First evaluation of U.S. National Fire Plan's management across West

The CSU/CU team is the first to evaluate the U.S. National Fire Plan’s management activities across the West, and to compare the location of fire-mitigation treatments to the wildland-urban interface and its nearby surroundings. The team’s findings will be published in the June 8 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The team found that only 11 percent of fuel-reduction activities took place within 2.5 kilometers (about 1.5 miles) of the wildland-urban interface, where fires pose the greatest risk to homes and people. At the same time, most of the treated land was more than 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from this high-risk zone.

There are reasons that more land near the wildland-urban interface might not have been treated. The study found that 70 percent of the wildland-urban interface plus a 2.5-kilometer community-protection zone surrounding it is privately owned, which limits the federal government’s ability to treat the high-risk zone.

Full news release


Contact: Kimberly Sorensen
E-mail: Kimberly.Sorensen@colostate.edu
Phone: (970) 491-0757