Editors’ Note: This blog is another installment in our Project Firehawk series, the series is named in reference to a cohort of Australian birds who carry fire in their beaks to spark change. Its essays explore the core underpinnings of our work, and in some cases, challenge the status quo. We have asked the series’ authors to be bold as they tackle hard questions to reveal needed shifts in our relationship with fire. We have asked them to be unafraid as they point out what is (and isn’t) working in our current system. These thought pieces may challenge you, create controversy, or even cause you to stand up and cheer. Regardless of your reaction, we hope this series causes you to pause and maybe even initiate a larger conversation about what it really means to live better with fire.

This blog, written by Ed Keith, County Forester in Deschutes County, Oregon takes on the concept and practices around the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI).

What’s in a name?  How much debate and consternation could three little words used to label an area where there is a combination of development and vegetation cause? Yes, I’m talking about the WUI; rhymes with phooey and otherwise known as the Wildland Urban Interface. If the debates currently raging in Oregon are any indicator…there’s a lot to those three little words.

I’d wager that when you think of the term WUI you think of some of the places you work, live or play that definitely fit the definition. Most of us have a “I know it when I see it” approach to the WUI, but what is that based upon? If I were to ask each reader of this article to draw it for me on the map, we might come up with as many versions of the map as we have map makers. And therein lies the rub.

While I don’t think the three words that make up the term perfectly describe the concept, WUI has been around long enough that wildfire practitioners have a pretty good understanding of what it represents. But then we put that concept in planning documents, codes and ordinances, and even try to map it. And when we start to do that, I get to wishing that we could back off to the nearest ridgeline and torch those three words.

Where did the term WUI come from anyway? Apparently, the term first showed up in Forest Service budget documents in the late 1980’s, although it didn’t start to be widely used until the National Fire Plan was formulated in 2000. The term likely resonated with fire managers because it encompassed an emerging issue—one of human communities expanding into areas where wildfires were occurring and infinitely complicating efforts to suppress those fires.

Since then several official definitions of the WUI have been adopted, all attempting to co-opt the term for their own purpose. The Oregon Department of Forestry recently compiled several of them as they were formulating what WUI definition would be adopted as required by the recently passed Oregon Omnibus Wildfire Bill, SB 762. In the end, Oregon adopted the International WUI Code’s version of the definition.

A text chart entitled Definitions of the WUI

Dissecting it a bit further, we can ask what is implied by each of the words “Wildland,” “Urban,” and “Interface.” Do these words accurately depict the image it conjures in our heads?

Are the wildlands you are thinking of “wild” in the true sense of the term or maybe it is just that the vegetation is native, fire-prone or fire-adapted? We often think of wild places as those that are untouched by humans, but when you consider the wide reach of fire suppression across our country what place is truly wild? I certainly wouldn’t think that anywhere near human development would be a wildland, could wildland and urban areas ever truly meet?

Urban is defined as being “characteristic of a town or city”, but are we just concerned with areas within a town or a city, or when you think of the WUI do you also think of rural places outside of cities and towns where people live, work and play?

Finally, interface implies there is a point or line where these wildlands and urban areas meet. One starts where the other leaves off. When I think of the so-called WUI, looking across the landscapes I work here in central Oregon, there are no clear lines but rather forests and rangelands so mixed and jumbled together with development that I can’t draw that line or point of interface on a map if I tried. I’d be willing to guess that’s the case for you as well.

You know what isn’t in the term WUI?  Fire.** There is nothing about fire or fire risk in those three little words and fire doesn’t even show up when it is further defined, as shown in the summary of definitions above; the concept of the WUI is about the composition of structures and vegetation. Yet, when we think of the WUI, we almost always think about fire risk as if there is a magical line where risk exists on one side and doesn’t exist on the other.  As if the millions of embers from the inevitable wildfire are supposed to stop at this magical line.

A photo of landscape with a house in the left background

A house sitting on the edge of a forest. Photo by Ed Keith.

Even our newest version of fire behavior fuel models is all about wildland fuels. When you try to model fire spread through a community the models commonly predict that the fire stops when it reaches the urban areas, that magical line. We tend to ignore our city centers in favor of their edges, yet more than one recent wildfire has demonstrated the ability of fire to reach from rural communities to urban cores without much distinction. We think that the vegetation presents grave risk to communities, or that communities present grave risk to the vegetation, when really it is all fuel that will burn when it meets the requirements of combustion.

The WUI, at its core, was a term meant to describe a perceived problem; now it is used to demarcate a perceived place. A short look at a few examples illustrate the issues with this shift:

  • The Sleepy Hollow Fire burned into Wenatchee, Washington in June of 2015, in what might have first appeared as a classic WUI fire, with a wildfire burning up to the edge of the city and igniting nearly 30 homes. As firefighters were busy fighting the fire in the Broadview neighborhood, embers from the burning homes travelled to the downtown core igniting and damaging multiple businesses. Subsequent mapping by the Washington DNR shows that this downtown area is not part of the WUI.
  • The Tubbs Fire burned 5,636 structures in and around Santa Rosa, California, and just over 25% of those structures were in an area too densely developed to be considered WUI, and another 4% too sparsely developed to be considered WUI. That’s over 1600 structures lost to a single wildfire that weren’t part of the WUI!
  • Closer to home, Deschutes County, Oregon defined a “wildfire hazard zone” that encompasses the entire County in 2003. It was just too difficult to think that an area of the county wasn’t at some level of wildfire risk. Would this zone be so all encompassing today if we tried to define WUI instead of the wildfire hazard zone? We’ll see soon as the State is due to complete the task of mapping said WUI by June of 2022.

What is in a name, indeed? At its outset, WUI was used to describe an emerging issue. Now some are more focused on deciding who is in or out of it. And what is implied by being in or out of a WUI? If you are not located within the WUI the implication I get is you don’t have to worry much about wildfire, but that may send a dangerous message, and is leading us away from using an inclusive approach that is needed for communities to begin to live with fire.

When I really start to think about it, using the term WUI oversimplifies the landscape it tries to represent, with all its complex social, political, economic and environmental issues overlaid on an ever changing geography. It implies there are areas in our communities without any risk, it allows us (from residents to decision-makers) to point the finger of blame and transmission at “others” or those who live somewhere else, and our obsession over mapping it perfectly keeps us from dealing with the real issues of adaptation and resilience our communities face.

Photo of a houses nestled into a forest

Houses sit within forest vegetation. Photo by Ed Keith.

The WUI may work, albeit imperfectly, as a concept, but it’s not meant to be a geographical place. The WUI isn’t a place at all, it is a set of conditions, and the more we try to define it and map it, the more we’ll have to disagree about.

I submit that it is time to sweep the term WUI to the curb, admit that the issues we’re trying to solve are more complex than something that can be captured in three words, and get back to work restoring our forests and rangelands, improving our wildfire response and continually adapting our communities to the fire adapted ecosystems we are all living in.  The WUI is dead. Long live the WUI.

**Read Sarah McCaffrey’s blog on Fire Narratives for more discussion of the term WUI.

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