YAKIMA – The reddish-orange stain on the boulders lining their long rural driveway reminds Susan and Al Maza just how close they came to losing their home to wildfire.
The stain is from fire retardant dropped by air tankers during 2010’s Cowiche Mill fire, which scorched much of the Mazas’ 40-acre spread and roared to within 20 feet of their house. That the home still stands is a testament to the fire crews whose efforts Susan Maza describes as “like watching a choreography of a ballet … everything according to plan.”
That firefighters were able to execute that plan, though, is also a testament to the Mazas.
Because they built so far out in the country, the Mazas took seriously their responsibility to make their home as fire-safe as possible. They wrapped their driveway around the house so emergency vehicles could get through, and maintained a tree-and-fuels-free buffer which allowed firefighters to halt the fire’s progress.
Not all residents of what land managers and fire experts call the “wildland-urban interface,” though, will be so fortunate. The Mazas have close friends who own a stately cabin in the forested hills near Cliffdell.
“I just hope they’re well-insured,” Susan Maza said. “If they had the winds like we had and they had a fire, it would just blow right through there. They wouldn’t be able to save it.”
Fire crews would almost certainly try. And they would probably spend many times the cabin’s value to defend it, while tying up firefighting resources that might be put to better use elsewhere.
In an era of increasingly large wildfires, the wildland-urban interface – where the forest meets development – has become the front line of a financial battlefield.
“Politically, no one wants to hear it – but the reality is there are places we should not be putting people,” said Jakki McLean, Yakima County’s fire marshal. “You own property and you want to build on it … but for your own protection, maybe you shouldn’t be building there.”
Yet people continue to do so. Some 45 million homes are already in fire-prone forests across the country, a number federal officials expect to rise another 40 percent by the year 2030. It’s a trend that chaffs at Neil Sampson, a former Senior Fellow with American Forests who consults on federal forest practices.
“God almighty, I started writing about that in 1970, and it has not gotten anything but worse ever since,” Sampson said. “It’s the sort of thing local government can’t grapple with very well.”
And Washington has more wildland-urban interface than most states.
A 2009 study found the state has nearly 200,000 residences in its wildland-urban interface – defined by the study’s author, Montana-based Headwaters Economics, as private forestlands within 500 meters of public forestlands. Washington’s level of development in wildland-urban areas, according to the study, is the second-highest (21 percent) among the 11 Western states.
Defending homes in the wildland-urban interface is by far the priciest part of fighting large wildfires, accounting for 50 to 95 percent of total suppression costs, according to a 2006 federal audit. The mere presence of those homes also drives wildland firefighting policy, turning many naturally caused fires that might otherwise be allowed to run their course – often to the long-term benefit of the forest – into ones that must be suppressed to protect the houses.
“Only about 2 percent of these (naturally ignited) fires are allowed to burn now, and the main reason is there are homes in the way,” said Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics. Progress has been made in educating those homeowners – through fire-preparedness programs such as Firewise and Ready, Set, Go! – to make their property as “ignition-resistant” as possible.
But those programs are after-the-fact; states and counties remain reluctant to adopt restrictive codes for building within the wildland-urban interface. The International Code Council’s International Wildland-Urban Interface Code has been adopted statewide by only two states, Nevada and Pennsylvania, and by some municipalities and counties in 10 other states.
In Washington, Yakima County adopted the ICC’s code in 2001 and remained the state’s only local government to do so until the last two years, when three other counties and a half-dozen municipalities adopted all or part of the standards. But each of the five or six times legislation has been introduced requiring statewide adoption – most recently last spring – it became mired in committees.
“Yakima County showed real leadership,” said Kraig Stevenson, ICC’s senior regional manager, “because it takes a little bit to implement that code.”
The biggest pieces of that “little bit”: the funding to do the extensive mapping necessary to determine what areas constitute wildland-urban interface, and the commitment of local authorities to demand strict adherence to the code standards on all future development.
“Well-written codes, properly enforced, do more to protect the public than anything we do,” said McLean, the fire marshal.
The main reason why it is so difficult to convince states and communities to adopt the international codes is money.
“Prevention produces both less cost and less damage,” said Sampson, the forest policy expert. “But prevention requires intentional cost, whereas the big wildfire event can be written off as accidental, emergency damage. And, politically, we’d rather pay 100 times emergency cost than one time intentional, preventative cost.”
The federal and state agencies that will pick up the bulk of the firefighting tab aren’t the ones allowing development – nor can they dictate to municipalities how they should go about their business.
“If more of the cost (of fire suppression) were borne by those who make the decisions to build, we’d see a very different pattern of development around the West,” said Headwaters Economics’ Rasker.
For now, Yakima County remains not only at the vanguard in terms of its codes, but also its relatively minimal wildland-urban interface development. According to Headwater Economics’ figures, only 7 percent of the county’s 60 square miles of the interface has homes (just over 1,100 homes total) – far less than the 16 percent average for the 11 Western states or Washington’s statewide 21 percent.
But the flip side of the picture is that the numbers mean 93 percent of Yakima County’s wildland-urban interface is still out there, just waiting for people with means to build. And many people will do just that – for better or for worse.