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June 8th, 2009

Fire mitigation work in U.S. West is misplaced

Tania Schoennagel (Geography and INSTAAR), along with colleagues at CU-Boulder, University of Montana, and Colorado State, have found that federal wildfire treatments have been minimally effective at mitigating the threat of wildfire to homes and people in the western United States. The team studied 44,000 wildfire mitigation projects in 11 western states between 2004 and 2008. They found that only 11 percent of those projects were located in or near the wildland-urban interface, the area with greatest potential to cut down catastrophic wildfire risk to communities. This result is in apparent contradiction to federal policies that stipulate significant resources should be invested in that high-risk zone. The research team also discovered that 70 percent of the area in and near that zone is privately owned, which limits the federal government's ability to perform mitigation.

The results underscore the research team's call for a "significant shift in fire policy emphasis from federal to private lands" if protecting people and homes remains a primary goal. For example, reducing ignitable fuels and structures within around 100 feet of private homes, called “firewise”, has been shown to most effectively protect a home from burning. The study also suggests that future fire mitigation strategies should emphasize restricting the abundance and configuration of residential housing units near wildlands susceptible to fire, and improving cooperation among private and public landowners in implementing fire mitigation treatments and in paying for fire suppression.

The team's work was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS).

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