The retreat from coasts threatened by sea level rise has just begun. Around North America, coastal communities are studying what awaits them and planning for it. In many cases planning amounts to preparing to surrender coastline that cannot be defended to the sea. Zoning is changed. Nothing new can be built. Nothing existing can be replaced. It's over. That's even happened in my little town to a beautiful, but low-lying, waterfront neighbourhood.
Now another retreat looms. This one being a retreat from the forests. Just as lots of people desire waterfront homes, many others crave the privacy and serenity of living past the 'burbs in forest acreages. It's what experts call the "wildland-urban interface."
Fort McMurray has focused attention on what can happen to homes situated in the wildland-urban interface in this new age of worsening forest fire hazards. With steadily warming winters, less snowpack, and hotter, drier summers, the fire season is growing longer and the wildfires are increasing in frequency, intensity and area. It's a problem far bigger than many realize.
The US Forest Service recently released a detailed report and map of the country’s wildland-urban interfaces, made by comparing satellite imagery with housing and population data from the US Census. In total, about one-third of its houses and population are in a wildland-urban interface zone, according to the report’s lead author, Sebastian Martinuzzi from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“That’s a huge number,” he says, attributing much of it to exurban sprawl and the desire to live close to nature in locations such as the fringes of Los Angeles, the “front range” of Colorado, and exurban parts of Texas and Florida. Not all of these houses and people are at risk of a fire, Martinuzzi says, but many could be given the right conditions.
By now we're familiar with the annual California wildfires that sweep through the luxury homes built in the hills. They make great TV. Southern parts of Europe, especially along the Mediterranean, are in the same boat, including France, Greece, Italy, Spain, Croatia and Turkey. So too are regions in South America. Australia, well, that needs no elaboration.
As fire losses in the wildland-urban interface increase it will put added pressure on governments for disaster relief that will be compounded as insurers begin their own retreat from unacceptable risks. Perhaps man and nature are losing their ability to co-exist.