June 9, 2004
Wildland/urban interfaces — where residential areas meet undeveloped vegetation — are increasingly the sites of environmental conflict, particularly in light of large-scale wildfires in the western United States.
To help federal agencies and local authorities manage fire risk, a team of researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the U.S. Forest Service analyzed and combined existing demographic census and satellite vegetation data to create a map of communities at risk of wildfire threats. A Web site with maps and data about the national landscape is now available to fire managers and scientists.
“At the national level, there was a question of how best to allocate the additional funding Congress set aside to manage fire risk,” said Volker Radeloff, a University of Wisconsin-Madison assistant professor of forest ecology and management. “To do this effectively, we want to know where people are building houses in the woods, and what ecosystems are being most affected.”
Radeloff, an expert in geographic information systems, used land cover data from the U.S. Geological Survey to classify areas according to vegetation type. A colleague, Roger Hammer, a University of Wisconsin-Madison rural sociologist, incorporated census data and demographic variables.
Research began in 2002 with support and assistance from the U.S. Forest Service. The team found that nine percent of all land area in the lower 48 states could be classified as wildland/urban interface, an area which includes one-third of all homes. The data shows that the eastern United States contains more interface areas — reaching a maximum at 72 percent of the land area in Connecticut — but that California has the highest number of affected homes.
“We also noted that while the devastating 2003 California wildfires affected 533 square kilometers of wildland/urban interface areas, and burned more than 3,600 structures, that represents only about five percent of southern California’s total interface area,” said Radeloff. “This highlights the need for ecological principles in land-use planning, as well as sprawl-limiting policies.”
The wildland/urban interface maps may be found online at http://www.silvis.forest.wisc.edu/projects/WUI_Main.asp.
An interactive mapping tool, which allows users to create, modify and print custom wildland/urban interface maps, is also available at the Web site.
“These maps were designed to be usable, and to help fire managers and policymakers implement fire policy,” said Susan Stewart, a project collaborator and research social scientist with the U.S. Forest Service’s North Central Research Station.
This article is based on a news release from the University of Wisconsin.