Life in the Wilderness City
Or, what can garbage-eating bears teach us about wildfire management?
NFPA Journal®, May/June 2012
I recently attended the annual Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute Conference in Denver, where I participated in a panel discussion of wildfire hazards and the role of regulations. I also did something unusual during the other sessions I attended: I took notes. This year’s theme, “The Wilderness City,” was of immense interest to me, and I wanted to capture details on topics ranging from open space management to the latest updates on climate change. The sessions prompted me to reflect on seemingly unrelated, yet similar, challenges faced by other environmental management professions and on potential lessons that can be applied in our wildfire advocacy work.
Take wildlife, for example. In Colorado, Boulder County receives more than 100 calls per year to respond to potentially troublesome bears and mountain lions. Although wildlife specialists have developed a number of studies and strategies to address the issue, these wildlife–human interactions continue, mainly due to trash that attracts the animals. About one animal per year has to be killed because it has become accustomed to humans and poses a safety threat.
This topic can stir up passionate public debate about our priorities, our preferences, and our neighbors. But what does it have to do with wildfire? First, there is a common theme: Human activities are directly responsible for creating the trash that attracts bears and mountain lions to urban environments. Similarly, statistics from the National Interagency Fire Center show that, in recent years, wildfires due to human activities have outnumbered lightning-caused wildfires by at least six to one. Second, although no one at the conference used the term “wildland/urban interface” (WUI) to describe the location of their wildlife issues, that’s exactly where they take place — a reminder to me that WUI growth not only alters the pattern, intensity, and frequency of wildfire, but disrupts natural habitat areas and ecosystems as well.
These connections bring us back to the theme of the conference: How do we create a wilderness city, where humans can compatibly and responsibly coexist with their environment? Many of us have strong preferences to live closer to trees, trails, parks, and even wildlife. But living in these areas alters the ecosystem and poses threats to us, be it increased wildfire risk, wildlife interactions, or other hazards. The Firewise Communities® Program addresses this topic through its recommended Firewise principles and advocacy literature.
I can also offer a lesson from the open-space management world. Panelists from across the Rocky Mountain West agreed that single-species management was the most difficult way to address a wildlife problem with the public — simply communicating about the animal/trash problem, for example, isn’t as effective as tying it to a larger wildlife-ecosystem management approach. The same can be true of wildfire hazards. We often talk only about clearing the brush and leaf litter around our homes to reduce wildfire risk, but sometimes the most effective strategy is to remind the public of the other benefits of responsible landscape management: reducing the unwanted bugs and critters near homes, lessening crime opportunities by increasing visibility near entrances, working with neighbors or the fire services to establish better community relationships, or planting Firewise landscapes for water conservation.
These details can get lost in our quest to get our wildfire messages across. As our profession strives to find the best ways to connect with the public, having one more strategy to choose from can’t hurt.
Molly Mowery is program manager for Fire Adapted Communities and International Outreach.