Project Summary

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The wildfire threat facing communities in the western United States is undisputed. According to the United States General Accounting Office (GAO) fire suppression policies on public lands coupled with population growth in wildland areas created increased risk to communities from wildfire disasters. Over the past decade, scores of lives were lost, tens of thousands of square miles of land was devastated, and thousands of homes and other structures were destroyed from damage inflicted by wildfire. Increases in population in the inland West coupled with the appeal of living in closer proximity to public lands create situations that expose more people, property and infrastructure to the risk of wildfire than at any time in recent history. The GAO estimates 60-100 million acres of public land and hundreds, if not thousands, of communities in the public land interface are at risk.

While many factors contributing to the intensity of wildfires cannot be controlled—wind, weather, humidity, temperature, and drought conditions—there are many actions that can be taken in the long and short term to respond to the threat of wildland fire hazards. The two dominant national-level policies to address the risks posed by wildfires, the National Fire Plan and the Western Governor's Association (WGA)10-Year Comprehensive Strategy Implementation Plan, identify four common goals for wildfire management to address long term threats posed by wildfire: 1) improving fire prevention and suppression, 2) rehabilitating and restoring fire-adapted ecosystems, 3) reducing hazardous fuels, 4) promoting community assistance. With these goals in mind, communities are urged to thin, conduct controlled burns, restore forests, suppress fire, create defensible space around homes and communities, undertake public education about wildfire and create markets for skilled work forces capable of removing and processing small diameter timber and forest restoration byproducts to respond to the threat of wildfire. But little is known about what is being accomplished on the ground or what combinations of responses are used at the community level.

Great uncertainty surrounds the scope and success of community responses and why some communities manage to foster constructive responses to wildfire risks while others fail to do so. In the past decade a natural experiment has occurred in the inland portion of the western United States as communities have taken different approaches to responding to the threat of wildfire. This research investigates the scope of actions taken to adapt to wildfire risks in New Mexico. The goal is to supply baseline data for what communities are doing on the ground while also providing an overview of statewide action.

Project Methods

The work in this study took place in two phases—1) a state-level analysis of wildfire risk to communities and their responses; 2) community-level case studies of responsive practices. New Mexico's "Twenty Most Vulnerable Areas" served as a state-level sample NFP grants mapframe. National Fire Plan grants awarded to each area for 2001 and 2002 were compiled to determine relative levels of responsiveness . Since many of New Mexico's Twenty Most Vulnerable Areas are a group of communities, case study selection focused on the single community areas. Silver City, Ruidoso and Red River were chosen based on their high level of responsiveness while Santa Fe Watershed was chosen for its relative lack of response to its wildfire threat. Wildland urban interface type and recommendations from agencies within New WUI type mapMexico were also considered. The research entailed site visits to each community, in-person interviews, document and photographic analysis, participant observation and on-site tours. View Summary of Data Collection Techniques as PDF. The case studies were analyzed according to the four goals identified by the Western Governor's Association 10-Year Comprehensive Strategy Implementation Plan.

Site visits to case study communities took place from June 2002 to January 2003; Silver City, June 22-26, 2002 & September 26-27, Ruidoso, September 23-26, 2002, Santa Fe Watershed, January 5-11, 2003 and Red River, January 27-30, 2003.


Project Findings

Silver City | Ruidoso | Santa Fe Watershed | Red River | Overall Summary | Links

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Copyright© 2003 Toddi A. Steelman and North Carolina State University

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