In the wake of a devastating wildfire season, CALS research guides fire management policy

When U.S. Senator Diane Feinstein introduced the Fire-Safe Communities Act on the Senate floor on the Friday before Thanksgiving, she could be confident that there was some solid science behind her legislation. Prior to introducing the bill one of her staffers had been in touch with Volker Radeloff, professor in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology.

“He was asking for background information, especially on the number of houses there are in the wildland-urban interface,” recalls Radeloff. “They also sent me a copy of the bill and asked for comments. I didn’t have many, because it is a very good bill.”

The bill is designed to provide funding to communities in fire-prone areas for better land-use planning and to support ordinances calling for effective preventive measures, such as restricting the planting of flammable vegetation close to houses, Radeloff says.

Radeloff got the call because he is part of a team that has engaged in a line of research aimed at identifying areas that are prone to wildfire damage due to their location on the interface between developed areas and wild lands.

The research goal is to help federal agencies and local authorities manage fire risk. The researchers have analyzed census and vegetation data to gain a new understanding of wildland/urban interfaces across the country. Also on the research team is Roger Hammer, a former faculty member in the CALS rural sociology department who is now at Oregon State University, and Susan Stewart of the U.S. Forest Service.

The Monday after the bill was introduced, Radeloff had another call from D.C., this time from the office of Mark Rey, USDA under secretary for natural resources, who had been asked to testify on Feinstein’s bill.

“He was especially interested in how much development had taken place after the California fires of 2003,” Radeloff says. “So we ran some numbers. Unfortunately, it turns out that the rate of housing growth after 2003 was greater than it had been in the 1990s.”

“I don’t want to suggest that the higher housing helped cause these fires,” he cautions. “It just shows that we didn’t do the kind of land-use planning that could have prepared us for future fires.”

October’s devastating wildfires in California have killed 10 people, injured 130, destroyed more than 2,000 homes and caused more than $2 billion in damage.

Radeloff’s phone has been pretty busy since the California fires flared up. Many media outlets around the country have contacted him. It was an article in the Washington Post that triggered the calls from the D.C. staffers.

The attention to the research is exciting and gratifying, he admits. “It’s rewarding to see the research being put to practical use.”