Wildfires and the Urban-Wilderness Interface

The best book I read in the last twelve months was fire historian Stephen Pyne’s magisterial “Fire in America”, a history of wildland fire in North America. I read it late last year, shortly after wildfires raced from thirty miles inland in San Diego County to within a few miles of the coast; the fires burned more than 400,000 acres and 2,000 buildings before they were extinguished.

Pyne’s book gave nice historical context on how humans insist on inserting themselves and ignition sources into fuel-rich landscapes. And when those fuel-rich landscapes don’t exist to our satisfaction we cheerfully create them, as is the case in southern California with non-indigenous eucalyptus groves that flame like napalm popsicle sticks.

The problem isn’t limited to southern California either. Unbeknownst to most observers, the percentage of land under forest cover has risen throughout the U.S. over the past fifty years, despite the urbanization of the landscape at the same time. Check the following figure for Ohio:

Apropos of all of this, yesterday a wildfire briefly threatened part of the University of British Columbia campus in Vancouver. With the city in a nasty drought and urban forest cover increasing, the result would be familiar to Pyne: An urban-wilderness interface right over top of a city, just like was the case more than one hundred years ago.