Correction to This Article
An Oct. 30 article on wildfires incorrectly quoted Walter Boyce, director of the Wildlife Health Center at the University of California at Davis, as saying that fire chiefs are beginning to acknowledge that some wildfires "can't be fought." It was Tom Scott, an assistant professor in the department of earth sciences at the University of California at Riverside, who said that.

As Houses Rise in the Wild, So Do Fire Concerns

A Southern California real estate sign was scorched by fire over the weekend. Experts question the costs associated with development in fire-prone areas.
A Southern California real estate sign was scorched by fire over the weekend. Experts question the costs associated with development in fire-prone areas. (By Reed Saxon -- Associated Press)
By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 30, 2006

BANNING, Calif., Oct. 29 -- Dennis Watkins wanted a piece of the good life. Several years ago, the Frito-Lay salesman and his wife bought a three-acre plot of land in the San Jacinto Mountains. In May, they completed their house -- a 3,000-square-foot ranch-style abode, 3,500 feet above the smog of western Riverside County.

"We built our dream house," Watkins, 54, enthused as he surveyed his estate. "We planned to retire here. After 14 years living in tract housing with no back yard, we loved the space."

A fire that started on Thursday roared through the mountains where Watkins lives. It burned 63 structures and 63 square miles, and it killed four firefighters while they tried to save a weekend house, making it the deadliest wildfire for firefighters since 2001. A fifth firefighter was in critical condition Sunday with burns over 95 percent of his body. Investigators said the fire was the work of an arsonist. As of Sunday, it was 70 percent contained.

Watkins's house was spared except for two windows that blew out because of the blaze's intensity. Flames roared past the house; charred chaparral now surrounds it. Still, Watkins said the inferno did not extinguish his desire to spend his golden years here. "It'll take two or three years for this to get back to normal," he said.

Watkins's journey from the suburbs to countryside -- and his brush with disaster -- has become increasingly common in the United States. He inhabits a zone known to experts and firefighters as the wildlands-urban interface -- the space where houses intermingle with wilderness, a space where millions of Americans long to live.

"It's the place where I want to live -- it's probably where you want to live, too. It's an attractive setting, but if we don't start planning development with these fires in mind, the problem is only going to get worse," said Volker C. Radeloff, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and an expert on the wildlands-urban interface.

In the 1990s, according to Radeloff's research, of the 13 million homes built in the United States, 9 million, or 69 percent, were constructed in these zones. California leads the nation with homes in these perilous districts -- with 5.1 million, up 12 percent since 1990 -- and it tops the nation in homes lost to wildfires. While many think the problem is confined to the West, New Jersey, because of the thousands of houses in and around the Pine Barrens, is second in the number of homes lost to wildfire. And 85 percent of New Hampshire homes are in the interface zone.

The development boom in forests and chaparral and along riverbeds has led some experts to question whether society can afford to have firefighters risk their lives to protect this lifestyle and whether federal, state and local governments should not limit development. Federal wildfire firefighting costs jumped 73 percent from 1994 to 2005, according to statistics from the National Interagency Fire Center. This year in California there have been 7,757 wildfires, many near populated areas.

The growth in the number and intensity of the blazes has prompted fire chiefs to acknowledge that "some fires can't be fought," said Walter Boyce, the director of the Wildlife Health Center at the University of California at Davis. "That's a notion fire chiefs didn't used to admit."

Now fire departments in California and elsewhere routinely take inventories of new houses to determine which can be protected if a fire erupts. "If we face a choice, we'll pick the house that has the best defensible space," said Janet Upton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry. She said she could not comment on what prompted the Forest Service fire crew to take a stand to save a house on Gorgonio View Road; that is the subject of a federal investigation.

On the plus side, houses more than ever can withstand fire. Watkins, for example, built his house with a fire-retardant composite roof and cleared a 200-foot brush-free buffer. Insurance rules in California would have caused his rates to triple if his house had a wood-shingle roof.

Still, with more people recolonizing America's wilderness, wildfires that used to erupt in isolation now invariably threaten property and lives.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company