Forest Fire in the American Southwest
Analysis header
The problemAnalysisSolutionsResourcesHot topicsLatest news
Fire statistics
Southwest wildland fire outlook 2003
Government reports
Fire maps
Geographical Information Systems
Site map
Search this site
Wildland-Urban Interface

“Many folks desire to have a few acres of land and a nice secluded home outside of town. What these folks fail to recognize is the increased danger from wildfire in these areas.”

Kansas Wildland-Urban Interface website

Click for larger image
Aftermath of the Rodeo-Chedeski fire. Photo © Tom Bean. Click for larger image.

Click here for larger image.
Homes in the community of Mountainaire south of Flagstaff, Arizona are embedded in dense thickets of ponderosa pine. Click for larger image.

When the Rodeo-Chedeski fire roared through the White Mountain communities of Heber, Overgaard, and other Arizona forest communities in the summer of 2002, an estimated 467 homes were destroyed. 30,000 people were evacuated during the course of the fire.

People love living in forest communities. They love having trees, wildlife, and recreational opportunities accessible from their own back doors. Unfortunately forests and fires come as a package deal. This is a fact of life for people living in the “wildland-urban interface” (WUI).

How to best protect communities from fire is a matter of some controversy, beginning with how WUI is defined. The Southwest Forest Alliance considers WUI "areas where urban fuels directly meet forest fuels. This is primarily within 20-60 meters (66-200 feet) of houses, where fire most directly threatens the house, and where a defensible zone can be developed.”

Paul Summerfelt, the City of Flagstaff Fuel Management Officer, prefers a wider definition based on community values. “[…] we look at the interface, and where we want to work is miles outside our community. Because while the flames may not threaten us directly in town, all those other things will be affected.” He cites tourism, recreation, and wildlife as examples (Kern, 2001).

A growing body of research suggests that “the only effective home protection treatment is treatment in, on, and around the house...homeowners must be responsible for protecting that property” (Nowicki 2001, p. 1:3). U.S. Forest Service research scientist, Jack Cohen stated that “home ignitions are not likely unless flames and firebrand ignitions occur within 40 meters [131 feet] of the structure […] the WUI fire loss problem primarily depends on the home and its immediate site” (qtd. Nowicki 2001, 2:4). The Firewise ( website contains valuable information to homeowners seeking to protect their properties.

Another area of controversy lies in determining what treatments are appropriate in WUI zones. Treatments for WUI areas and ecological restoration treatments in remote forests are conducted for different purposes. Restoration is mainly concerned with forest health while WUI treatments are intended to protect homes and property. There is some overlap. Restoration can help reduce fire risks to communities by reducing wind blown firebrands that cause ignitions, but restoration is not the sole cure for WUI fire risk.

President Bush’s “Healthy Forests Initiative” proposes to protect communities from wildfire by allowing more commercial logging and bypassing certain environmental regulations. However, a panel of forestry experts and firefighters recently concluded that logging forests outside the wildland-urban interface will do little to protect communities from fire (Walker and Schardt 2002).



Fire Investigation Team, National Interagency Fire Center. 2000. "Bandelier National Monument Cerro Grande Prescribed Fire Investigation Report." 4/14/03. Government agency analysis of the Los Alamos Fire’s causes and future recommendations.

Kansas Forest Service. "What is the Wildland Urban Interface? What does it mean for Kansas." 4/14/03. Simple definition of WUI and fire dangers therein.

Kern, Jennifer. 2001. "Paul Summerfelt Interview." 4/15/03. City of Flagstaff Fuel Management Officer offers comments on fire, community values, and WUI issues.

Marzluff, John M. and G.A. Bradley. 2003. Ecological restoration in the urban-wildland interface. Pages 353-370 in Friederici, Peter, ed. 2003. Ecological Restoration of Southwestern Ponderosa Pine Forests : A Sourcebook for Research and Application. Washington, D.C. Island Press, 544 p. How human structures, fire ecology, social constraints, and ecological factors such as large populations of crows, jays, weedy plants, and other species complicate restoration efforts in WUI.

Nowicki, Brian. 2001. "Protecting Communities from Forest Fires: Effectively Treating the Wildland Urban Interface." Southwest Forest Alliance. 4/15/03. Analyzes research on WUI treatment issues and recommendations to agencies.

Nowicki, Brian. 2002. "The Community Protection Zone: Defending Houses and Communities from the Threat of Forest Fire." Center for Biological Diversity. 4/15/03. Defines WUI, depending upon risk, as a maximum 500-meter defensible perimeter; makes treatment recommendations.

Weller, Robert. Associated Press. 2001. "Forest Service mobilization under scrutiny." 4/14/03.
News service story describes inter-agency difficulties in dealing with the Rodeo-Chedeski fire.

Other resources

ABC News. 2000. "Finger-pointing over Los Alamos Fire." 4/14/03. News story tries to sort out what went wrong on Los Alamos controlled burn.

Bureau of Land Management Idaho. 2001. "Wildland Urban Interface." 4/14/03. Risk assessments for Idaho WUI communities.

Bureau of Land Management Wyoming. 2003. "Wildland-Urban Interface
Communities-at-Risk Program." 4/14/03. Field office documents and maps detailing WUI treatments in Wyoming.

Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance. 2001. "Wildland Urban Interface Community and Rural Fire Assistance." 4/14/04. “ implement the National Fire Plan and assist communities at risk from catastrophic wildland fires by providing assistance…” Also lists available grants.

Central Yavapai Fire District. "Wildland Urban Interface." 4/14/03. Describes the role of the CYFD in fire prevention and response.

Cleaves, Dave. 2001. "Fires in the Wildland-Urban Interface: Dilemmas of duality and the role of National Science Leadership." 4/14/03. Presentation to National Disasters Roundtable calls for better science education and public outreach.

Colorado State University. 2001. "Urban Interface." 4/14/03. WUI basics; links to Colorado mitigation activities.

Colorado State University. "Wildland-Urban Interface Update." National Association of State Foresters. 4/14/04. State and project reports to the Western Governors’ Association.

Davis, James B. 1990. "The Wildland-Urban Interface: Paradise or Battleground?" 4/14/03. Journal of Forestry article describing the complex relationships between property owners and management agencies in WUI areas.

Firewise. 2003. 4/14/03. Website sponsored by the National Wildland/Urban Interface Fire Program; includes resources and links for community fire prevention efforts and information to help property owners minimize fire risk.

Janning, Bruce. "Wildland/Urban Interface (A Burning Issue)." 4/14/03. On-line essay outlining basic WUI issues.

Kamp, Matt and Neil Sampson. "Using GIS to identify potential wildland-urban interface areas based on population density." 4/14/03. Technical report with recommendations to agencies.

Marnell, Matthew J. 1997. "Protecting your home from wildfire." 5/23/03. Basic wildfire protection information.

National Wildfire Coordinating Group. "Wildland/Urban Sites." 4/14/03. Website with links to Firewise reports and other WUI related documents.

Nelson, Robert H. 2000. "Policy Lessons of the Los Alamos Fire for Federal Lands." 4/14/03. Testimony to a joint hearing of the Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health and the Subcommittee on national parks and Public Lands on June 7, 2000.

Prescott Area Wildland/Urban Interface Commission. 2003. "Regional Alert Information." 4/14/03. Twelve local government agencies coordinated information website. Daily fire monitoring for Prescott, AZ area.

Randall, Cotton K. "Fire in the Wildland-Urban Interface: Understanding Fire Behavior." 4/14/03. Describes the unique characteristics of fire behavior in WUI areas.

Southern Center for Wildland-Urban Interface Research and Information. 2003. "Interface South." 4/14/03. Website developed by the U.S. Forest Service “to heighten awareness of and provide information about WUI issues.”

Southwest Colorado Fire Information Clearinghouse. 2003. 4/14/03. Sponsored by the San Juan Public Lands Center (USFS/BLM), the Colorado State Forest Service and the Office of Community Services at Fort Lewis College.

Summerfelt, Paul. "The Wildland/Urban Interface: What’s Really at Risk?" 4/14/03. Essay posted on the Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership website discussing complexities of WUI science and politics.

University of Nevada-Reno. "Living with fire: A guide for the homeowner." 5/28/03. The fire environment, fire behavior, FACs about defensible space, etc.

USDA Forest Service. "WUI: Biological Assessment and Evaluation." 5/13/03. Set of maps on WUI Areas on National Forest Service lands in Arizona and New Mexico. Coverages include fire regime & condition class, GES vegetative communities, GIS vegetative data, and fire vegetative data.

USDA Forest Service. 2001. "WUI: Wildland Urban Interface." 4/14/03. “Following the 2000 disaster in Los Alamos, New Mexico, known as the Cerro Grande Fire, the Forest Service began looking for ways to influence fire behavior in Region 3 [Southwestern] Wildland Urban Interface areas so that future disasters may be avoided.”

Walker, Ryan and A. Schardt. 2002. "Firefighters, Forest Experts, Strongly Criticize Bush Forest Fire Plan. Environmental Media Services." 4/16/03. “A nonprofit organization dedicated to providing journalists with the most current information on environmental issues.”

The White House. 2002. "Healthy Forests: An Initiative for Wildfire Prevention and Stronger Communities." 3/14/03. Entire draft of the “Healthy Forests Initiative."

Wolf, Thomas J. 2003. In Fire's Way: A Practical Guide to Life in the Wildfire Danger Zone. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. 176 p. Simple, relatively inexpensive things you can do to protect your home.

Last edited June 25, 2003

Go to top

NAU's Program in Community, Culture and Environment Northern Arizona University