Before I begin, I request that you search for wildfire photos on Google Images.
Let these pictures sink into your mind. I don’t need to look them up because I witnessed the Bitterroot Wildfire firsthand in Montana when I was nine. The fascination and terror simultaneously burned into my memory, leaving me with a deep love and respect for the forces of nature. One day, my father, sister, and I decided to go fishing at Georgetown Lake. Looking back on it now, the scenery is the closest parallel I hope to ever imagine of nuclear winter: Ash covered the sky like snow, blotting out the sun with a viscous cloud that only allowed glimmering flames passage through the darkness. Later that week, I witnessed an entire mountain-side consumed before my very eyes as the phalanx of flame and smoke advanced toward the unfortunate homes in its path. It always felt like the days were shorter when the smoke gave summer afternoons the appearance of dusk.
Luckily for me, I was merely visiting the Open Sky Country that summer. For many communities across the United States, however, the imagery that I’ve described is an essential part of their lives. Like tornadoes in the Midwest or hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, wildfires define the cultures of the American West from Wyoming to Washington, from Texas to Alaska. Yet wildfires are unique from hurricanes or tornadoes in that they can truly occur anywhere. While the circumstances for wildfires vary throughout the country (along with the techniques used to fight them), their impacts can be universally felt.
For those of you unfamiliar with forest ecology, wildfires play an essential role in maintaining forest health and habitat. There are various conifer trees that rely on the heat for reproduction, as their cones need to be exposed to a certain temperature in order to disperse their seeds. Wildfires keep encroaching vegetation in check as they clear the underbrush, eliminating any vines from entangling and choking healthy trees. Weak or diseased trees are cleared to make way for the young and the strong. The low intensity fires also allow for new undergrowth to sprout anew, providing vital food sources for wildlife. The charred trees hold onto these memories within their tree rings, recording these burn events alive within their very being (note: dendrochronology, the science of tree-ring studies, this one of many techniques biologists use to record wildfire events in the past). No doubt that wildfires possess devastating potential for destruction, but through the ashes lie the seeds of life, beauty, and renewal.
While fires are part of the natural cycle that maintain forest ecology, we humans are but mere mortals that operate within minute timeframes, often in ways that come into direct conflict with these natural cycles. In 2010, it was estimated that approximately 10% of homes in the conterminous U.S. were located within the Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI). Here is how fire management and policy defines the wildland-urban interface and intermix:
Intermix: Areas with ≥ 6.18 houses per km2 and ≥50% cover of wildland vegetation
Interface: Areas with ≥6.18 houses per km2 and <50% cover of vegetation located <2.4 km of an area ≥5 km2 in size that is ≥75% vegetated
The wildland-urban interface has also been adopted by ecologists in determining areas most susceptible to invasive species, land encroachment, reduced water quality, water quality, and other environmental problems.
Wildfire suppression costs the United States approximately $2 billion per year, but the damages caused by these fires is significantly higher. Yet many communities across the U.S. continue to expand development into areas that are highly vulnerable to wildfires. What’s more disturbing is that wildfires are predicted to become even more severe, and costs to fight them are expected to double by the year 2030. With this in mind, the recently elected Trump administration and Republican Congress, who have been abundantly clear about their disregard for environmental protection and denial of climate change, should reconsider their stance as more communities become affected by this growing problem.
To be fair, I cannot put full blame on the politicians for not understanding the issue at large. After all, wildfires are very much out of sight, out of mind for most of us, especially here in Michigan. But we, as planners, have a responsibility to become cognizant of wildfires as part of our reality, especially considering the social and economic costs that come with the territory. This means working with communities toward improving fire resilience for existing structures while discouraging continued expansion of the WUI. This means amending comprehensive plans and zoning codes by integrating Community Wildfire Protection Plans or Wildland-Urban Interface Codes. This includes education and outreach to those within the WUI; some cities, such as Boulder, CO, have developed various education and outreach programs to inform the public on creating fire-resilient communities. Unfortunately, there are very few communities across the U.S. that have incorporated wildfire planning into their comprehensive plans or zoning codes.
For me, this is a very personal matter that I will bring into my career as a planner. While undergoing a year-long internship in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge back in 2015, I had the opportunity to live with wildland firefighters at my bunkhouse. That year, I even became certified for wildland firefighting and would have been called to action had one occurred on the refuge. I also have friends from AmeriCorps who served as wildland firefighters. I even fell in love with one. I always worry when they are deployed, but I know it’s what they love to do. It is common for me to find their posts on my Facebook newsfeed as they are called to action, to protect those who are often out of sight, out of mind. As a planner, and as a friend, I owe it to my wildland friends who work 12-18 hour days performing gruesome manual labor of digging fire lines, removing debris, suppressing flanks, and risking their lives.
This is a call to action. We, as planners, hold a duty to plan and protect communities, both at the neighborhood scale as well as the national level. Not only does this mean incorporating wildfire plans, ordinances, and mitigation strategies into community character, but also strategies to curb haphazard development and adapt to the subtle but ominous change in our climate. This entire post is written so that my friends may gain the support they need to continue protecting communities all across the U.S. To expand the scope, it is also for everyday people so that they may reconsider the threats to their communities, saving both money and lives. Finally, this is also addressed to politicians and elected officials so that they may understand what is at stake if we fail to properly combat climate change and environmental destruction.
In my own special way, this is an ode to these brave men and women, these unsung heroes who I am honored to call my friends.