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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Wildfire Protection in the Wildland-Urban Interface

Kelsi Bracmort 
Specialist in Agricultural Conservation and Natural Resources Policy

Congressional interest in funding to protect against wildfire threats has focused on communities in and near forests, an area known as the wildland-urban interface (WUI). The WUI is expanding in size and population, leading to increased concern for life and property that could potentially be damaged by wildfires. Approximately 10% of all land in the lower 48 states is classified as WUI. A significant concentration lies along the East Coast, although western states have the highest proportions of homes in the WUI.

Federal funding for wildfire protection has increased significantly over the last decade. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Department of the Interior (DOI) receive the bulk of funding to prevent and suppress wildfires. Nearly half of the USFS budget in 2012 was allocated for wildfire funding. A portion of this funding is spent on WUI efforts.

Wildfire, whether in a WUI community or not, occurs primarily as a surface fire or a crown fire. A surface fire burns the needles or leaves, grass, and other small biomass within a foot or so of the ground and quickly moves on. A crown fire burns biomass at all levels, from the surface through the tops of the trees.

Wildfire suppression involves removing one of the three elements that cause fire—fuel, heat, or oxygen. A variety of WUI wildfire control efforts may be used for structures, including building structures to meet protective standards. Some standards vary by state, and many are voluntary, such as removing burnable materials in proximity of a structure (i.e., defensible space). Control efforts for protecting wildlands include fuel reduction, or allowing the fire to burn if the ecosystem is able to adapt to and recover from periodic burning.

Programs and other options exist to address wildfires in the WUI. However, these programs could be refined to better address the current situation, and new initiatives and funding could be applied towards WUI issues not yet addressed. For example, programs could be expanded to educate homeowners, state and local governments, and the insurance industry about the ways to protect homes through actions, planning, and zoning and building regulations. Congress could consider expanding protection for defensible space beyond the home ignition zone to a community protection zone. Congress could also consider appropriating additional funds through the states for fuel reduction on private lands in the WUI where the treatments would be effective. Additionally, Congress could consider expanded compensation for landowners who suffer resource losses from wildfires.

Date of Report: May 15, 2013
Number of Pages: 11
Order Number: RS21880
Price: $29.95

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