More and more homes are being built on land between dense urban development and wilderness
By Jessica Klinke
Two years ago the Labor Day Fires swept through communities and forests in Oregon and California, destroying towns, livelihoods, and claiming several lives. The Almeda Fire in Southern Oregon, fueled by strong winds and erratic fire behavior, claimed more than 2,000 homes and businesses in the towns of Talent, Phoenix, and parts of Ashland. On the other side of Jackson County, the Obenchain Fire burned 32,000 acres, impacting residents of Eagle Point. The Slater Fire in northern California and Southwestern Oregon burned more than 165,000 acres, including the town of Happy Camp, the ancestral lands of the Karuk and a place many tribal members and elders call home. The weather events of that weekend — including strong easterly winds and record low humidity — resulted in devastating fires in other counties throughout Oregon, like Lane, Douglas, Clackamas and Klamath.
These fires, which hit so close to home for many of us in the Klamath-Siskiyou bioregion, brought to light many issues facing those of us who live in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI). The WUI is a frontier dividing urban development — like houses, towns, and communities — from undeveloped land. Many people In western states like Oregon and California live in the WUI as opposed to city centers because it can offer options for more affordable housing, it allows easy access to a lifestyle closer to nature, or they may require it for professional reasons, such as if they grow food, wine or cannabis.
Issues with fire in the Wildland Urban Interface are not new, but they are becoming more problematic. In particular, those who live in the WUI are finding themselves at the frontlines of growing problems with fire. For decades, developers have built more homes in areas where fires have historically burned and areas that will most likely burn again.
Between 1990 and 2015, one study found that 32 million new homes were built in fire-prone areas — and that number keeps growing. States and local municipalities need to start addressing issues facing home and business owners in the WUI by imposing tighter restrictions on future development to ensure greater protections for communities against wildfire when it does arrive. These restrictions might include mandatory “defensible space” and updating building codes to include fire-resistant materials and zoning requirements that could help safeguard communities from devastating fires. Federal, state and local governments can help people already living in fire prone areas by ensuring they have the resources needed to make defensible space and harden their homes.
After the smoke clears, communities are looking for new ways to rebuild and ways to be resilient in the face of climate change and wildfire, but we need to rethink how and where we build communities that overlap with fire prone landscapes.
For more resources on creating defensible space, home hardening, and living in the WUI, check out our Forest & Fire Toolkit available to download at kswild.org/forest-fire-toolkit. While you’re there, check out our fire and climate podcast, “One Foot in the Black” (kswild.org/podcast), where we examine wildfire in the West and learn from experts on how to live with fire in the era of climate change. For our third episode, “Communities at Risk,” we address issues around the Wildland Urban Interface and ways to better protect our homes, our communities and each other.
KS Wild Side appears every month and features a staff member from KS Wild, a regional conservation organization based in Ashland. Jessica Klinke is communications director for KS Wild and Rogue Riverkeeper, and producer of KS Wild’s fire and climate podcast, “One Foot in the Black,” which you can find anywhere you listen to podcasts.