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New report suggests strategic land-use planning can increase firefighting efficiency

Building houses far apart and in locales beyond town – the wildland-urban interface – increases firefighting costs in the Rocky Mountain West, according to a new report from the Open Spaces Initiative at the University of Wyoming.

The authors suggest strategic land use planning can reduce wildfire suppression costs by increasing firefighting efficiency.

“Residential Development Effects on Firefighting Costs in the Wildland-Urban Interface” lead author Anna Scofield spent 10 years as a wildland firefighter before taking up the research at the University of Wyoming.

According to the report, available from the University of Wyoming Extension at bit.ly/Firedevelopmentcost, the dramatic rise in firefighting costs over the last decade is due in part to the growth of residential development in the wildland-urban interface.

“Protecting homes from fire is dangerous and expensive. Solutions to rising costs must address that reality.” Anna Scofield, report author

“Protecting homes from fire is dangerous and expensive. Solutions to rising costs must address that reality,” said Scofield. (See bit.ly/firecost for a report on Forest Service firefighting expenses.)

Costs are higher in the wildland-urban interface because firefighters shift from simple fire containment to structure protection, she said, and added that the cost of full suppression is significantly higher.

Widely dispersed developments and isolated homes also require more resources to protect than homes clustered in one area.

Land use decisions at the town and county levels have major consequences for federal wildland fire management, said Scofield.

“Our research offers local governments a middle ground between legislation that ignores the increased suppression costs of development in the wildland-urban interface and policies that exclude that development altogether,” she said.

Using data from 291 wildfires in Colorado, Montana, and Wyoming from 2002 to 2011, researchers found a single isolated home can add $225,000 to overall firefighting costs, while a home within a dense cluster can contribute as little as $100.

The Wyoming Open Spaces Initiative supports Wyoming citizens’ conservation of open spaces through research, information, education and decision-making assistance, according to its website. Its research explores agricultural sustainability, community planning and development, wildlife and other cultural, economic and environmental issues.

The initiative is a collaborative effort of the University of Wyoming Ruckelshaus Institute of Environment and Natural Resources, the Wyoming Geographic Information Science Center, the Department of Agriculture and Applied Economics, the Department of Geography, University of Wyoming Extension and the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database.

“Residential Development Effects on Firefighting Costs in the Wildland-Urban Interface” is also available for download from the Ruckelshaus Institute at bit.ly/haubfirecosts. To request a hard copy, contact ruckelshaus@uwyo.edu or 307-766-5146.

–UW Extension


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