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Living on the Woo-Eee!

Living on the Woo-Eee!
By Kathy Anderson

Special to the Beat

When I was in the fourth grade, my father decided big city life was not in our best interests so we moved to a 50-acre plot just outside a small farming town in Southeastern Ohio.  I learned living in the country required a certain degree of self-sufficiency and hard work.  We cleaned up our trash and cared for the land.  We cleaned up after farm animals, grew much of our food, and supported our neighbors.  We rode a school bus (unheated, no seat belts).  Whoa; Abe Lincoln, I’m not!

Seriously, though; we’re not that different, right?  It appears that time has made the difference.  We didn’t have Woo-Eees back then.  “WUI,” the acronym for Wildland Urban Interface, is that area where structures and wildlands meet in wildfire prone areas.  We weren’t so wildfire prone back then in Ohio, but we are today in New Mexico – and in many other states, even Georgia and Massachusetts.

There are more than 46,000,000 homes located in 70,000 at-risk WUI towns in America today, populated with over 120,000,000 people, on over 1 billion acres of US wildland.1   Those homes can be located on the edge of large cities – or be in a small town that’s completely located on a WUI.

Home owners on the WUI should understand “defensible space,” and learn about “home ember zones.”  Living in an ember zone means that fire embers can travel over one mile, land on ignitable fuels, and burn.  It’s said, for example, that a large fire like the Silver Fire can throw embers 30 miles or more.  If those embers land on easily ignited fuels, like dry grass, birds’ nests in eaves, or wood piles, a home could burn.2  

The numbers of homes situated in WUIs are growing.  And growing.  Most of the land back East has been developed while 86% of the wildlands in the West remain undeveloped.3  And fires, whether caused on wildland by lightning or humans, or spread to home fires into the WUI, now happen every month.  We’ve come to realize we no longer have a “fire season.”  Wildfire in the Wildland Urban Interface happens every month of the year.4  

Total federal costs for fighting WUI fires is increasing.  In the 1960s, e.g., federal costs for fighting wildfires approached $750 million a year.  Federal agencies now spend over $3 billion a year.  The total cost for fighting only two wildfires - the Waldo and Black Forest - is $3.4 billion.5

Fires like we’ve been seeing and hearing about include wildfires that are monsters like the Waldo, the Wallow and the Granite Hill/Yarnell fire.  They’ve taken homes; they’ve taken lives – sometimes many.  Now, the federal Department of the Interior and the United States Forest Service folks are beginning to talk about getting out of the fire-fighting business in the WUI.6  

Firefighters can flank these wildfires (if the wind’s not too high), firefighters can back burn them (unless it puts them in danger), and retardant can be dropped by aircraft (only if the aircraft are available, it’s safe to fly, there is enough money to operate them, and then only to temporarily subdue crowning for a short period of time).  Firefighting strategies can be matched to weather predictions, but there’s no just putting them out.  Further consider that federal firefighters cannot fight structural home fires because they are not equipped with Personal Protection Equipment (PPE).7  And tankers are becoming more expensive to use every day.8


 1 Dan W. Bailey, Wildland Fire, Natural Resource, Environmental and Natural Hazard Programs for the International Code Council, Ruidoso, NM, 8/12/13.
 2 http://www.iafc.org/associations/4685/files/wild_readySetGoProgGuide.pdf
 3 Dan W. Bailey, Wildland Fire, Natural Resource, Environmental and Natural Hazaqrd Programs for the International Code Council, Ruidoso, NM, 8/12/13.
 4 Ibid.
 5 Dave Nichols, Senior Government Relations Manager, International Code Council, Ruidoso, NM, 8/13/13.
 6 Dan W. Bailey, Wildland Fire, National Resource, Environmental and Natural Hazard Programs for the ICC, Ruidoso, NM, 8/12/13.
 7 Ibid.
 8 http://www.pulitzer.org/archives/8352

The Quail Ridge Fire on the south side of Silver City ran at 35 to 70 miles per hour with crowns coming off high enough to jump paved streets.  In a fire like the Silver Fire, with tall ponderosa, historic undergrowth fuels, and a drought, the fire refused to lay down at night.  It boiled up a pyrocumulus cloud 35,000 feet high and took trees that were 200 years old.  “Pyrocumulus,” a term historically used for the weather you see coming off a volcano, has become a household term associated these days with large wildfires that throw plumes of clouds high into the atmosphere.

In the '60s, you could expect to hear about an annual, national loss of 200 houses from wildfire.  Now, it’s running about 3,000 homes a year, on average.  And all the statistics are going up.  In 2012, 36 firefighters died and 4,244 houses burned.  There were 67,315 wildland fires in the US last year that burned a total of 9.3 million acres.   The data are horrendous.  

All of this has the serious attention of the insurance industry.  In 2012, insurance companies saw an annual claim of $1.7 billion dollars.  They’re already seeing claims totaling $1.1 billion for 2013 and it’s only August.   

It’s clear we need to protect ourselves.  My husband and I, both in our 60s, have cleared or help clear four acres of land located around us in the past two years - most of which is not our own.  Trash and debris have to be taken to the dump.  Trees need to be limbed up to at least 15 feet from the ground.  Some trees have to be cut, particularly if they’re close to the house (30 feet normally and perhaps 100 feet if you’re upwind and uphill), and our houses need to have tighter mesh on soffits, attic vents, and under eaves.  Wood piles have to be moved far away from houses.  We have to think about the wind.

We need to make our homes “defensible,” not only for our own safety and survival, but particularly for fire fighters who determine whether our homes can be saved because they are “defensible.”  It’s all about taking care of ourselves; about living in the country and supporting one another as a community; about being ready.  It’s also about hard work and partnering with our neighbors.

There’s a lot of information out there with which to educate ourselves.  Ideas for local help for those without family support are being discussed and explored.  For more information on what you can do now, go to www.fireadapted.org, http://www.livingwithfire.info/fire-adapted-communities, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIirF5dpoNM, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defensible_space_(fire_control), http://www.es.readyforwildfire.org/, and http://www.stateforesters.org/news-events/blog/wildfires-raging-fire-adapted-communities-crucial-safety

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