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Special challenges heat up where wildfires and urban life meet.
Fire, whether started by humans or by lightning, is necessary and inevitable. It helps to maintain the beauty and health of our forests even though it is destructive. Each year, thousands of acres burn, destroying dozens of structures and threatening hundreds more. Excluding fire from wildlands is not possible.
Today, however, a unique wildfire danger is growing where homes and other structures are built in areas of highly flammable vegetation, creating a condition called the wildland-urban interface (WUI). The WUI can be a lone house in the middle of a forest, a subdivision on the edge of a pine plantation, or even homes surrounded by grassland. Adding buildings to areas that historically burn interrupts the natural cycle of wildfires and creates a situation where homes and businesses potentially become just another piece of burnable fuel during a wildfire. Increasingly, people are moving into wildland areas without adapting to the dangers around them.
Fire officials are greatly concerned when the structures themselves are made of flammable materials and built in remote areas when roads and driveways are narrow or sandy, making it impossible for emergency vehicles to reach them.
Unfortunately, even though housing in the wildland-urban interface is increasing, the number of available firefighters and equipment is not increasing at the same rate.
We can start preparing for wildfire by working together. As homeowners, we can partner with others in our community as well as local fire departments to develop a safety plan in the wildland-urban interface. By planning how home sites are designed, built and maintained in wildland areas, we can work together toward becoming "firewise." Becoming firewise is a process, not an endpoint. That process includes paying attention to the features on your property and in your community that may start or spread a wildfire.
The goal is to prepare homes and businesses to survive wildfire without the intervention of the fire department, allowing firefighters to concentrate on controlling the fire without having to make stands to save individual homes.
Jolene Ackerman is Wisconsin DNR's wildland-urban interface coordinator.