TRI-CITIES – Beyond the urban centers of Seattle, Tacoma and Spokane and out into rural central and eastern Washington lies a patch of land not quite uninhabited and not quite bustling – the wild land urban interface. This is the area where undeveloped land meets developed land, where buildings meet forests and fields.
As more workers find opportunities to do their jobs from home and rural areas gain access to high-speed internet, more people are moving from city centers to these areas, sometimes resulting in a number of unintended consequences.
Wildfire hazards, wildlife collisions, and dwindling resources are some of the effects that could come from more people moving into undeveloped areas.
And yet, it’s the fastest growing type of landscape in Washington, said Ashley Blazina Cooper, environmental justice officer for the Department of Natural Resources and forest health officer for western Washington.
From 1990 to 2010, the size of the urban wilderness interface in the United States grew by approximately 190 million acres, or nearly 297,000 square miles, larger than the state of Texas. The number of dwellings increased by approximately 41%. Nearly 99 million people live in the region and more than 46 million homes in 70,000 communities are now at risk from wildfires, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the US Fire Administration.
Although there is no exact data on how these numbers have changed since 2020, census data shows that counties with a mix of rural and urban land in Washington have seen growth over the past 10 years. years.
Franklin County’s population grew nearly 24%, the largest population change in Washington. Its neighboring county of Benton also rose by around 18%.
Other central Washington counties, such as Douglas, Grant and Adams, rose more than 10%. Chelan, Kittitas and Whitman counties increased nearly 10%.
Most of the people who move to these areas have never lived in rural areas before, said Mark Billings, a professor at Washington State University’s School of the Environment. Many of them do not know how to live in this landscape and protect themselves.
“There’s probably a percentage of people moving into (the urban wilderness interface) that shouldn’t be,” Billings said.
Wildfire RiskWildfire danger is increasing due to climate change and more than 100 years of fire suppression, Billings said. At the same time, the number of people at risk is increasing.
“Anyone who moves into (the urban wilderness interface) needs to understand that they are taking on the responsibility of living with a wildfire,” Billings said. “There is no escaping it, and at some point they will be affected.”
One of the biggest concerns for people moving to these areas is that it changes the wildfire dynamics there, Cooper said.
Houses are often made of wood, and they have a different way of burning than a tree, she said. The likelihood of a house burning down depends on a number of factors including the density of development or the direction the house is facing.
“The (urban wildland interface) doesn’t necessarily equate to wildfire risk, but building a home in WUI generally puts that home at higher risk,” Cooper said.
Having a home in these areas can also make it difficult to put out fires, Cooper said.
Firefighting resources often prioritize areas where lives and property are at stake, Billings said. This often means more expensive firefighting.
“The more people at risk, the more resources we need to protect them,” Billings said.
In recent years, the number of fire starts has plateaued, he said, but the fires that break out tend to be larger and more problematic as they threaten human habitat.
There are a number of things people can do to protect their property and make it more defensible against fires, Cooper said.
She suggested looking at historic photos of what the forest around their home looked like. Most homes will need to do some type of thinning on their property to make their space more defensible.
If they are building a house, consider installing metal roofs or metal doors and make sure there is no vegetation around the first 5 feet of the house. If they are buying a home, they can ask previous owners or real estate agents what they recommend to protect their home against fires.
It’s also important to consider escape routes, Cooper said. Many developments only have one entry and exit path, so it is important to take this into account when moving to a location at risk of wildfires.
“There are a lot of risks involved with this, and they should be aware of everything that makes their home safe before moving into one of these areas,” Cooper said.
Billings also said people should familiarize themselves with institutions in their community that deal with fires, whether volunteer firefighters, state agencies or federal agencies. In some areas there is no dedicated fire department or formal fire protection, he said.
Ken Bevis, wildlife biologist responsible for stewardship at the Department of Natural Resources, said people living next to wild land for the first time should contact the Department’s Small Forest Owners Office to learn how to care for them. their lands and make them more defensible.
Washington State University’s Extension Forestry Program offers a planning course for people who want to learn how to take better care of their land, he said.
Human presence is “a mixed bag” for wildlife, Bevis said.
More development and greater human presence generally affect larger animals more than smaller ones, as human activity can push animals that would otherwise roam freely across the landscape, he said. People are scared because they don’t expect it, but they move into a neighborhood where wild animals normally exist.
There’s often “a very low tolerance” for large animals, like bears or cougars, Bevis said.
Once they start interacting with humans, “it’s usually only a matter of time before they’re killed,” he said.
Small animals are the ones that often cause the most nuisance to owners.
Bevis said he encourages landowners to create habitat complexity when managing land. By planting shrubs or roses, for example, you can take advantage of small wildlife by providing them with a habitat.
“Typically, we humans think of our development as our own, but in reality wildlife thinks of it as their habitat,” said Michael Atamian, regional biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Some animals can’t enjoy development, so it pushes them away. Others, like the pigeons of the big cities, settle down.
Atamian said there is no specific data showing there have been more wildlife sightings in Spokane in recent years, but anecdotally he has heard more people in the area report observations.
Part of that increase is due to more new arrivals, he said. Traditional rural landowners might not report a sighting that someone who has just moved to the area and has never seen certain types of animals before would.
In recent days, the department has seen a lot of calls about porcupines, which can be a problem for pets, Atamian said. They also get lots of calls about deer.
Atamian said there’s not a lot of data that shows there’s been an increase in wildlife-human or livestock conflict, but “the more people you put in a landscape, the more has the potential for conflict,” he said.
To avoid conflicts, Atamian encourages owners to secure their trash, feed their pets indoors, keep their pets indoors during dusk hours, and generally give their space to wildlife.
Whenever there is a problem, Atamian said residents should call the Fish and Wildlife Department.
There is a section of the state building code that is now linked to the International Wild Lands Urban Interface Code, which city planners, firefighters, and building code officials are required to use. He says that any new construction built or anything that needs to be retrofitted in the Wildlands Urban Interface must follow certain parts of the code to ensure they are fire resistant.
“It’s something that’s definitely an ongoing process because many counties don’t necessarily have the means to do it,” Cooper said.
For example, one of the requirements is that all new buildings use fire-rated roofing materials, but many counties have no way of tracking this.
It’s important to figure out who the community trusts and use those people to try to solicit change, he said. For example, if a community trusts its local fire department but not its state government, it is important that these people be the intermediary between the state or federal agency and the local community.
The number of large fires in the western United States doubled between 1984 and 2015. Although every year is different, data from the National Interagency Fire Center shows that the number of acres burned has become consistently higher over the past few years. 20 years nationwide.
It has become all too common for entire cities to burn down, like Malden, Washington, or Paradise, California.
As the fires continue to escalate, communities bordering the urban wilderness interface should be aware of their wildfire risk, Billings said. Many of these people probably don’t regularly think about wildfires, but may soon become more sensitive to large fires.
“It’s going to become increasingly common that towns that we didn’t think of as being in danger of wildfire are in danger of wildfire,” Billings said. “You’re going to start seeing them burn. It’s frightening.”