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Northern Research Station
One Gifford Pinchot Drive
Madison, WI 53726
(608) 231-9318
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Forest Disturbance Processes

Wildfire Management in Wildland-Urban Interface Areas

[photo:] A wildfire moving up behind a farmhouse.  Photo provided by BLM.Research Issue

Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) areas are places where built structures bump up against or intermingle with undeveloped natural areas. WUI land is in great demand for new houses and other development because people enjoy living, visiting, and recreating in natural settings. Located all over the U.S., WUI areas may be especially vulnerable to wildfire damage, non-native pest infestations, and other natural resource disturbances.  They therefore pose special challenges for natural resource managers and planners.

Our Research

Our research focuses on where WUI areas are located now, where we can expect the WUI to expand in the future, and the implications for land managers and other decisions makers. We have used census, land cover, and land use data to look at how and where natural areas are influenced by human development.

In one study, we looked at demographic trends that have impacted and will continue to impact wildfire management in WUI areas of the U.S. Although population growth has had an impact on the emergence of the WUI, there has been a de-concentration of population and housing in many areas. Population growth has also occurred in some rural or semi-rural counties and there have been inter-regional population shifts across the West and Southeast of the country. In the coming decades, we expect the retirement of the baby boom generation to exacerbate these trends.

In another study, we identified WUI housing areas in northern Wisconsin that are more susceptible to wildfire. This is challenging because wildfire patterns depend on fire behavior and spread, which in turn depend on ignition locations, weather conditions, the locations of fuels, and topography. We conducted 6000 simulations with two dynamic fire models – Fire Area Simulator (FARSITE) and Minimum Travel Time (MTT) – in order to map the spatial pattern of burn probabilities. The resulting burn probability maps were compared with maps of structure locations and land cover types. The simulations revealed clear hotspots of wildfire activity and a large range of wildfire risk to structures in the study area.

Research Results

Hammer, Roger B.; Stewart, Susan I.; Radeloff, Volker C. 2009. Demographic trends, the wildland-urban interface, and wildfire management. Society and Natural Resources. 22: 777-782.

Massada, Avi Bar; Radeloff, Volker C.; Stewart, Susan I.; Hawbaker, Todd J. 2009. Wildfire risk in the wildland-urban interface: A simulation study in northwestern Wisconsin. Ecology and Management.258: 1990-1999.

Stewart, Susan I.; Wilmer, Bo; Hammer, Roger B.; Aplet, Gregory H.; Hawbaker, Todd J.; Miller, Carol; Radeloff, Volker C. 2009. Wildland-urban interface maps vary with purpose and context. Journal of Forestry 107(2): 78-83.

Stewart, Susan I.; Radeloff, Volker C.; Hammer, Roger B. 2006. The wildland-urban interface in the United States. In: McCaffrey, S.M., tech. ed. The public and wildland fire management: social science findings for managers.Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-1. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station: 197-202.

Research Participants

Principal Investigators

  • Roger B. Hammer, Department of Sociology, Sustainable Rural Communities Initiative, Oregon State University
  • Volker C. Radeloff, Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Susan I. Stewart, Research Social Scientist, U.S. Forest Service, Northern Research Station

Research Partners

  • Gregory H. Aplet, The Wilderness Society, Denver, CO
  • Avi Bar Massada, Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Todd J. Hawbaker, Rocky Mountain Geographic Science Center, U.S. Geological Survey
  • Carol Miller, Wilderness Fire, Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institut\
  • Bo Wilmer, The Wilderness Society, Boise, ID

Last Modified: 10/20/2010