The Wildland Urban Interface, or WUI, is where forest and homes meet. It’s the fastest growing land use type in the nation, and also where one in three homes across the country are situated. What’s it mean to live in the WUI, where the stakes of wildfire are higher than anywhere else? And why is this area so vulnerable to fire?
- Jen Henseik is the Missoula district ranger for the Lolo National Forest
- Rod Moraga is a former firefighter and the CEO of Anchor Point, a wildland fire solutions group based in Boulder, Colorado
- Kimi Barrett leads Headwaters Economics’ research in wildfire and other natural hazards and is the Program Coordinator for the Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire program
Transcript and links:
Justin Angle Previously, on Fireline:
[Richard Wrangham]: “The word focus derives from the Latin word for fire. And it’s a reminder that people love to focus on fire.”
[John Maclean]: “Fire is not some strange, foreign creature. It is part of the soul of man.”
[Lily Clarke]: “Fire in itself is not an issue. It is only an issue when it begins to threaten human values.”
[Germaine White]: “Pretty powerful disincentive to continue your cultural practices when you’re shot and killed.”
[Andrew Larson]: “Am I making any difference here with the science? That’s what I wonder sometimes.”
[Brent Ruby]: “The sun came up over Mount Sentinel as Rango tightened his laces and took a deep breath…”
Support for this program comes from Berkshire Hathaway’s Homeservices Montana Properties, First Security Bank, Blackfoot Communications, and A New Angle podcast.
[News clip 1]: “Breaking news this evening as fire crews are working to quickly contain a fast moving fire burning at the base of Mount Sentinel…”
[News clip 2]: “Mount Sentinel was on fire tonight resulting in the closure of the popular “M” trail, and a response of several agencies…”
[Audrey Glendenning]: “I was in my apartment right there and somebody was hiking on the mountain and screaming fire. And I, people were outside trying to figure out what he was saying. And then by the time I got out here, the I heard sirens and I guess the fire trucks were coming and then the helicopters started coming in.”
[Caitlin Wilson]: “I thought we were definitely getting evacuated. I came back, I was driving back for work and I called her. I was like, dude, look outside.”
[Victor Yvellez]: “How fast did it kind of rush?”
[Caitlin Wilson]: “Oh my God. It like…so fast. Yeah. It was insane.
[Victor Yvellez]: “Were you here?”
[Caitlin Wilson]: “Yeah we were because I got here when I was about halfway and it just went shoooew.”
Justin Angle That’s Audrey Glendenning and Caitlin Wilson, students at the University of Montana, talking with our producer Victor last August.
A fire had broken out on Mount Sentinel. It’s a peak that rises two thousand feet right out of the eastern edge of the University of Montana campus1. By the time Victor got on scene, a black mark had spread like an immense stain across the yellow-brown slopes of the mountain.
No homes or buildings were destroyed. Nobody evacuated. Compared to other parts of Montana and the country, we were lucky. But it caused quite a commotion in town.
This is Audrey Glendenning again.
[Audrey Glendenning]: “At first you could hear you could hear the fire so loud. It sounded like rushing water. It was really, really loud and was climbing up about like halfway up the mountain.”
Justin Angle The slope of Sentinel is mostly grass and shrubs2. Compared to trees, grass burns like lightning. Invasive plants, like cheatgrass, can increase the fuel load and create a small wall of flames that sprint across a hillside.
It turned out later that a couple kids playing with a lighter had started the fire3.
Jen Henseik, Missoula district ranger for the Lolo National Forest, watched the smoke from her yard nearby as she fielded frantic calls.
[Jen Henseik]: “Luckily, it wasn’t a terribly windy day because if it had been, it probably would have moved up into Sentinel, over Pengelley, down over toward Patte picnic area. And if you know that area, there’s all kinds of houses.”
Justin Angle As of 2018, about half of the homes in Missoula County are in areas designated as “moderate” or “high” for wildfire danger4. So she says that fire on Sentinel —
[Jen Henseik]: “That is absolutely a wake up call, an opportunity for us to learn about what it’s like to live in the WUI.”
Justin Angle This term – WUI – sounds like something my kids holler when they run around the backyard on the first warm day of the year. But it’s important to know. It means the wildland-urban interface. It’s where homes and things that could catch and spread fire, like trees, hang out together. It’s the flammable landscape where people live. Like right here, in Missoula. The flames on Sentinel were almost in town.
[Jen Henseik]: “I mean, that’s it started on city and city limits. And my house is in city limits, but it’s considered WUI. And I think it’s important for us to think about that.”
Justin Angle Whether you’re in Western Montana, California, or Texas – this is the area that you might interact with on a day-to-day basis and not even think about it. The WUI is home to one in three houses across the country5. And it’s also the area where dealing with fire is most complicated, expensive, and at times heart-wrenching.
I’m Justin Angle. Welcome to Fireline: a series about what wildfire means for the West, our planet, and our way of life.
We’re going to leave Mount Sentinel behind to look at what’s going on where homes meet forests. What’s it mean to live in the WUI, where the stakes of wildfire are higher than anywhere else? And why is this area so vulnerable to fire?
This time, in the final installment of Fireline, we have a two-part episode, all about the wildland urban interface. This is Episode Six, part one: Moral Hazard.
Justin Angle Rod Moraga’s relationship to the WUI, much like the WUI itself, is complicated.
Rod Moraga When we get into the WUI, there’s an urgency. There’s a chaos.
Justin Angle Rod understands that chaos pretty intimately. He’s fought fire for decades. And he runs a private wildfire consultancy that helps people adapt to wildfire risk.
He embodies two sides of the WUI story. On the one hand, he fights fires there. He understands its challenges — the WUI is growing faster than any other land use type across the country.
Rod Moraga We’ve got thousands upon thousands of homes that are not up to snuff, not up to code, and we just can’t retrofit every one of them.
Justin Angle On the other, he’s lived in the WUI. We’ll hear more about that part of his story in a bit.
But Rod’s complicated relationship with wildfire started when he was in college, getting his undergrad degree in New Jersey. He came west to Colorado one summer for a forestry internship.
Rod Moraga Part of the orientation was the wildland fire course. I remember distinctly not paying any attention because I had no intention of fighting fire.
Justin Angle Forestry and firefighting, he thought — totally different things. But it was 1988 —
[News clip 3]: “It’s not getting any easier for firefighters at Yellowstone National Park.”
Justin Angle — The year more than a million acres burned in and around Yellowstone6. It was a national emergency. All hands on deck. He was sent up to Wyoming to try to contain the flames.
Rod Moraga It was quite miserable. I absolutely hated it. I didn’t enjoy any piece of it. I said to them, the reason I go to college is so I don’t have to dig a ditch. That was that was the whole reason I thought I was getting an education, was to avoid hard labor.
Justin Angle But as an intern, he didn’t have much of a say on that front. So digging fireline, sweating under the Wyoming sun, he found himself staring at the flames, fascinated.
Rod Moraga watching it burn was just. amazing to me. It struck me the power of this natural phenomenon.
Justin Angle On that assignment he began to learn about fire’s role on the landscape. And he got the bug; despite his rough start that first summer in Wyoming, he never left the world of fire.
Rod Moraga It’s definitely been my career path is keeping fire in the landscape and doing our best to work with it as opposed to against it.
Justin Angle But it’s not just his career experience that equips Rod to talk about living in the WUI. It’s his personal story, too. Rod and his wife bought a home outside Boulder in the early 2000s.
Rod Moraga For a young couple, to afford a home, you had to look to the foothills.
Justin Angle The roads were steep and rutted. It was far from the city. It was in the WUI, and Rod knew the risks. The house needed a lot of work anyway, so as he upgraded he did things like put on a metal roof. He thought about defensible space — a buffer between the house itself and anything that can catch fire.
And Rod and his family loved it up there. There was no cell service, so it was a break from work and city life. He had a hot tub. At night, he liked to soak and look up at the stars.
Rod Moraga Oh man, the best part of it was the solitude and yet — there’s an incredible community.
I don’t know anyone who locked the door up there, and so if I needed something in my my neighbor wasn’t home, I would just walk over and open the door and grab the salt or, I’m not going to lie, a bottle of wine, and it was cool. I’d just leave them a note. And that was kind of the case, that you need a tool which everyone needs up there because you’re always working on your house. Everybody just, sort of, really great community spirit. But at the same time, everybody really respected the space.
Justin Angle Rewind to September, 2010. Rod was living in that house in the foothills and serving as part of the local volunteer fire department.
Rod Moraga I got a tone for a small fire.
Justin Angle A tone is a notification, like on a radio or walkie talkie.
Rod Moraga And I responded. I was, I think, the first one there, myself and the chief. And when we got there, the fire was, oh, maybe not even a half acre on the hillside.
Justin Angle It was just a little fire. Nothing to worry all that much about — at least, that’s how it started.
Rod Moraga And in the time that we were making a plan for getting a crew up the hill. I think I believe what happened was there was a microburst of some kind, this wind just came down and just pushed that fire and it just grew tenfold really fast.
Justin Angle It became known as the Fourmile Canyon Fire.
[News clip 4]: “The Fourmile Canyon Fire burning near Boulder, Colorado is now the most destructive wildfire in that state’s history…”
Justin Angle It destroyed nearly 170 homes before the flames were out7.
[News clip 5]: “After the winds died down, the sky would become a stream of choppers and air tankers to douse the blaze. More than 3,000 people had to flee their homes at a moment’s notice.”
Justin Angle But on the ground, Rod didn’t know what the fire would become.
Rod Moraga I was operations, and so my job is to manage all the resources as they come in and when I say resources that equipment and fire engines, et cetera, and people in those fire engines. And your biggest concern on that, whenever a fire is in its sort of development stage, it’s the highest risk for people getting hurt or killed. Because as we as a fire incident develops, we don’t have a handle. We don’t have accountability yet.
Justin Angle The fire spread. By the end of the first day, the flames encompassed more than 5,000 acres8. Early on, Rod’s wife piled in a car to town with their young son, his friend, their dogs and their neighbor’s cats.
Rod Moraga So, if you can imagine two dogs, two cats with no cages and two four year old boys in the car with my wife.
Justin Angle Meanwhile, Rod did his job, dispatching engines, trying to figure out what might happen next.
Rod Moraga At some point I was like, boy, I better go check on my house.
Justin Angle He drove up the mountain road – and all seemed fine. He kept attending to the fire elsewhere. But then —
Rod Moraga I heard someone say that the fire had spotted. South to the drainage that would be sort of across from mine, from my home. And so, that’s when I started to, for the first time, think that there was actually a chance that my house could be threatened.
I went back to my house one more time, and now there was just ash and embers just kind of falling everywhere.
Justin Angle He saw some smoke at a neighbor’s house – a piece of the deck was on fire. He flagged down an engine to put out the flames.
Rod Moraga So the home was saved and then they went on their way up the hill to do some other stuff. And then. I eventually came back to my house and I watched the fire. It was coming down the hill, not at a great rate spread or anything. It was just that I had nothing to put out the fire with.
It was one of a very frustrating moment because I had a fire engine with 50, 60 gallons of water. We probably could have put out the fire that was creeping towards my house. But I was the one who assigned all the fire engines. So a little bit of irony. There was no fire engines for me. And so the fire just backed into the corner of my house. Got got the deck and once it caught the deck on fire, that’s when I knew it was gone.
I just watched it for a little bit until it was about half engulfed and then just left. Try to do what I could for the rest of the fire.
Justin Angle Later, when had time, he drove back up those rutted roads to see for himself what had happened.
Rod Moraga It was burning very aggressively, but it was completely collapsed. And I have a picture of just the roof, the metal roof which survived, but it was sitting on top of a collapsed structure that was completely burned.
Justin Angle We’re gonna pause Rod’s story right here. His home burned down, Rod looking at the ashes.
In one sense, what Rod went through is unique. He’s a firefighter who lost his own home to a wildfire. But Rod’s one of a growing number of people to be directly impacted by fire. As of November last year, wildfires had destroyed nearly 90 thousand structures since 20059.
Our editor Nick and I talked with Kimi Barrett on Zoom.
Kimi Barrett And can you guys both hear me OK? You sound good. Yeah. OK, fantastic.
Justin Angle She’s the lead wildfire research and policy analyst at an independent, nonprofit research group called Headwaters Economics. She thinks deeply about the root of our issues in the WUI.
Kimi Barrett The physics of wildfire research, the understanding of wildfire conditions that lead to extreme wildfire events or catastrophes of that large scale. We know the science behind that. We know why those occur. The bigger questions are social science questions like, well, why are we still building in wildfire prone lands? We know they’re going to burn down.
Wildfires are a natural ecological process. It’s an inevitability that they are going to occur and yet we continue to build homes in harm’s way. Why is that?
Justin Angle Kimi sees our predicament in the WUI as interconnected with all kinds of other issues in the West. The heart of it is bound up with how we’ve treated this region for centuries.
Kimi Barrett And this gets back to the whole idea that we can domesticate the West. Going back to Early Frontiers – the mythology about how we romanticize the West, that we continue to believe that if we just manage the forests appropriately, it’s not going to be a problem.
Justin Angle This idea — how we manage our forests — gets a lot of discussion at the big political scale. And forest management can sometimes be really important in impacting how fires behave. It can mean things like thinning and logging to create fuel breaks.
The point is, for so long we’ve seen wildfires as a technical problem that we can overcome with technical solutions. In that line of thinking, we don’t fundamentally have to change the ways in which we live, we just have to get better at manipulating and controlling nature.
Kimi Barrett To my understanding, there are no examples of us as a society saying you cannot develop there because of all fire risk. We’re thinking about that with sea level rise and with flooding. This idea of managed retreat with other climate hazards, we’re not really doing that with wildfires.
Justin Angle Instead of stepping back from the risks associated with the WUI, as a society we’re leaning in. The wildland urban interface covers an area bigger than the state of Texas10. And from 1990 to 2010, more than 13 million new homes were built there11. According to the federal government, it keeps on growing by an area about the size of Yellowstone National Park every year12.
With no wildfire preparedness, Kimi says each home — usually piled up with flammable stuff like a wood roof, a deck, mulch, trees and shrubs,
Kimi Barrett It’s a little fuel bomb.
Justin Angle So why do we keep building in this area? She says part of that answer likely has to do with who foots the bill. To draw that out, she uses an economics term — moral hazard.
Kimi Barrett Moral hazard is simply put like approving something because you’re not going to bear the cost of the consequence.
Justin Angle When we estimate the cost of a fire, we often just talk about putting it out: the suppression costs. But the real price tag averages about ten times more than that. There’s the cost of homes, property and infrastructure destroyed. Lost tax and recreation revenue. And damage to the ecosystem itself.
The thing is, it’s easy to ignore the reality of wildfire risk — to think oh, that’ll never happen here. And when it does, the costs are felt over a long period of time. And most of them are distributed in a way that rarely touches the pocketbooks of on-the-ground policymakers. So the price tag of developing in the WUI is abstract and faraway. But the benefits of building more there? A boom in growth can be felt immediately.
Kimi Barrett As an elected official, you have no incentive to prevent or limit building in any area, but in wildfire prone lands when that’s only going to increase your tax revenue base. And when it comes to a wildfire, us, as federal taxpayers pay that bill. So, you know, like, why if I’m a county commissioner, why would I care if that house burns down? Because I’m not going to pay for it.
Justin Angle This is just one side of the complex web of questions that arises when you approach wildfire from a social science, rather than natural science perspective. There’s also a question of who exactly is living in the WUI – and why?
One narrative is that the WUI is made up of mostly wealthy white folks seeking the wonders of the natural world. And in some areas, that’s true. But in others, zoning and skyrocketing cost of living mean the only affordable houses are on the outskirts of the city, or up in the mountains13.
Kimi Barrett You look at Oregon and Washington, some of those most impacted communities this year were immigrant families working on agricultural lands14. So we do know wildfire impacts, as with all climate change impacts, disproportionately impacts some populations over others.
The city of Austin, for example, who has a long history of racial segregation, built into the legacy of how that city was built, has disproportionately placed Blacks and hispanics in their city to be most impacted by wildfires. And that’s just kind of how the city has developed over the centuries. And so they’re trying to address that now because of this racial legacy of segregation. How can they start directing resources to those most impacted communities? How do you start tailoring outreach materials in multiple languages? How do you start considering evacuation protocol for families that might not have a car?
Justin Angle Bottom line: the WUI is complicated. There’s no one answer to how to live alongside wildfire. But as wildfires grow in intensity — as more homes are destroyed, people displaced, our relationship with the flames remains fundamentally unchanged.
Kimi Barrett What you see in California, particularly after the catastrophic events like the Camp Fire and the Carr Fire —
[News clip 6]: “This is paradise. Or, what remains of it. Block after ashen block of burned houses and ruined lives.”
[News clip 7]: “The Carr Fire burned dozens of homes in the Redding area North of Sacramento.”
[News clip 8]: “You can see behind me here some of the homes that were lost overnight…
Kimi Barrett — Is that rebuilding has been expedited. You know, like the permitting process has been sidelined so that they can build in as quickly and as fast as possible to the same building standards as they were previously15.
Justin Angle In instances like that one, the course ahead is more of the same. That frontier ethic remains intact— more control, more building and development without adapting to a fiery landscape.
Kimi worries about what it could take to change that mindset.
Kimi Barrett I think we’re all waiting for that transformational event that will be like, whoa, we’re kind of fucking this up. We got to start doing things better. And were not, we haven’t seen that yet with wildfire. We all thought it would be Camp Fire when eighty eight people died16.
[News clip 9]: “In just a few terrifying hours, it killed about ninety people and destroyed almost 19,000 buildings, businesses and homes.”
Kimi Barrett And yet it wasn’t. So what will it be? That’s the big question. It’s going to have to be bigger than the Camp Fire, which is pretty terrifying to think about.
Justin Angle Fire is far away. Until it’s not. Until you’re staring at the ashes of your own home. Suddenly it’s intimate, it’s immediate, it’s real. And so are the consequences of our relationship with wildfire.
That’s how we get back to firefighter Rod Moraga, looking at his smoldering house outside Boulder, Colorado.
Rod Moraga The next morning, I remember that I got up. It just sort of an autopilot, I got up and just started putting on my Nomex my fire gear and I was put on my fire boots and my wife said, What are you doing? And I just said what I got, we got a briefing at 600. I got to get up to the briefing and she just looked at me and she was like, no, you can’t go out and do that.
I had to accept and sort of deal with the fact that I was now on the other side of where I am usually and not managing a fire, instead being a victim of the loss of the home.
At the point where I said, OK. Yeah, I guess you’re right. That’s when I realized that I had no other clothes, like the only clothes I had were my fire gear. So I was putting them on regardless, because I just didn’t have anything else to wear.
Justin Angle Rod and his family spent months in a rental condo in Boulder, starting the long process of rebuilding their lives. New clothes included.
Rod Moraga There were days when I would just be // we’re good, we’re still there and that’s enough. And then there were other days when you just be like ah, man, this really sucks.
Justin Angle They made the occasional trip back into the foothills to visit their old home. After the hotspots were out and the media had gone away, things had calmed down in the canyon. It was quiet.
Rod Moraga just sat there and kind of stared. Stared at it and just sort of try to get your head around it and have a lot of memories and all that kind of thing, and it’s you know, it’s like I say, it’s a pretty surreal process. You know, there’s a lot more than just four walls involved in a home. So it can be difficult at times, you know?
Justin Angle Even after losing his home, Rod remained a firefighter at heart. One thing hadn’t changed at all since he was digging fireline as an intern back in 1988 — he was still fascinated by fire, and the intricacies of how it burns.
Rod Moraga I walked my whole five acres and to see how the fire burned through it, looking at the intensity levels as it traveled from a north aspect to a south aspect because the slope changed. I’m still geeking out fire behavior. It was like my own little lab, you know, because I knew that the space so well, I knew the land so well.
Justin Angle At the time, I have to imagine that was a way of separating himself from the trauma of the experience. The impacts of the fire must have seemed so arbitrary — his neighbor’s house was spared because of the calls he made, but his own home was gone.
Rod Moraga As firefighters, you know, we just we can’t get all emotional in the midst of our job or we wouldn’t be able to do it. And so, you know, when we’re engaged in a large fire suppression and we lose some homes, of course we feel terrible about it. But our motto is always sort of focus on what you can do, not what you can’t do. So we’re always just OK, that sucked. We lost those homes. Let’s see if we can’t save these. So to have lost a home was the first time it had a very different connection to me. All of a sudden I was like, oh, man.
Justin Angle Rod says that new connection helps him better relate to homeowners when he’s talking about wildfire risk for his job. He’s been through it. He says lots of people think that firefighters will save the day if flames come through. He has a strong reaction to that idea.
Rod Moraga We don’t try to stop tornadoes or hurricanes or earthquakes. No one has any expectation for the fire department to run out there and wrestle a tornado. They just ask us to help after the event.
Justin Angle When news breaks about a fire threatening or destroying homes, fire’s portrayed as an invader that doesn’t belong. It’s the same simplified narrative about fire we’ve been hearing for a century. Here’s forest ecologist Andrew Larson. You heard from him in episode 2.
Andrew Larson I guess I worry that we haven’t made any progress as a society past that. Fire is an inevitable part of this landscape. It’s just – we live in a flammable place.
Justin Angle But the more I’ve talked with folks like Rod and Andrew about wildfire, the more I’ve realized that characterizing fire as something evil and foreign just misses the mark
Rod Moraga I don’t know what the future is going to be. But I do know that. Fire is not going to change for us, so we’ve got to figure out a different way to work with it.
Justin Angle Talking about fire in the WUI is so complicated, and to me so interesting, because by definition it’s all about living with fire. As Rod’s saga demonstrates, living in the WUI carries the high stakes of life and death, property and loss. At the same time it shines a light on the fact that as much as fire is a product of our own actions, it’s also something far beyond our control.
When fire comes to town, it makes a relationship most of society has lost sight of immediately visible: a relationship between us and flames.
So what can we learn — about ourselves and about fire — from looking deeper into the area where homes and flammable stuff meet? Our story of fire in the WUI is only just beginning.
[Voice 1]: “And so, you get a blizzard — billions of fire brands coming out of extreme flame fronts.”
[Voice 2]: “Any change that’s going to happen is going to come from the community level. I strongly believe that.”
[Voice 3]: “This point is just a starting point. We’re just laying this foundation, kind of, path to allow us as a community in a forest grab onto it. And then, move forward.”
Justin Angle That’s next time, in the final installment of Fireline.
Victor Yvellez Fireline is hosted by Justin Angle. Writing, editing, and production is by Nick Mott and me, Victor Yvellez. Our fact checking is by Aj Williams. Original theme music is by Travis Yost with additional music from Blue Dot Sessions. And our cover art is by Jessy Stevenson.
Justin Angle If you like what you’ve heard, please follow us — and leave us a review, wherever you get your podcasts.
Victor Yvellez A special thanks to Jen Henseik, Rod Moraga and Kimi Barrett.
- 1)https://www.usfa.fema.gov/wui/what-is-the-wui.html#:~:text=Between%202002%20and%202016%2C%20an,2%20million%20acres%20per%20year 2)https://www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/parkfacts.htm#:~:text=Geography,the%20park’s%20total%20area%20continue.&text=2%2C221%2C766%20acres%20or%20899%2C116%20hectares.