Friday morning, the second day of the Backyards & Beyond conference, Lincoln Bramwell, PhD., chief historian from the USDA Forest Service, talked to participants about homeowners and fire on the forest edge.
Bramwell started his presentation with an example of a large wildfire in a community on the south coast of Maine, which that year had received only 50% of its normal rainfall. Burning 17,000 acres in and around Arcadia National Park/Mount Desert Isle by the time it was contained, it was known as The Year that Maine Burned. It was 1947.
Fast forward to 2015 and Bramwell explained that the fires of today very much mimic the wildfire problems in the 19th century. More specifically, he explained that fires today continue to loom, especially in the east and south, where a growing population has moved out of the urban areas into more rural places he calls the "wilderburbs." Wilderburbs, says, Bramwell, make up about 77% of the nation, and this housing trend is having a huge impact on wildfires, namely how they are impeding our fire fighting efforts.
"We have to prepare in the east as they do out west," says Bramwell. Raising awareness and educating people that fires do exist here and will continue to happen, is imperative, he says, we can't assume that wildfire is only a western problem anymore.
One of Bramwell's observations in his research focuses on this challenge: that there continues to be a disconnect between those that live in these rural areas and what they expect, and reality, especially when it comes to wildfire. As fire fighters, researchers, planners, forestry service professionals and others, we need to continue to communicate more honestly and openly, educate and raise awareness about how homeowners play a huge role in helping prepare and protect their neighborhoods in the wildland/urban interface. While we are still able to contain 97% of the fires, says Bramwell, there are more fires coming that we may not be able to stop unless everyone takes responsibility for their own homes.
The more that people are aware of the fire problem where they live, the more they will come to realize that fire fighters can't save all of their homes and that they should take action. And the more we as professionals collaborate with each other, and talk to residents, the more we can create safer places for all of us to live when the threat of wildfire comes our way.