The Tri-Cities – Outside the urban centers of Seattle, Tacoma, and Spokane and toward the rural areas of central and eastern Washington, there is an expanse of land that is neither completely uninhabited nor completely crowded – the wild urban front. It is the area where undeveloped land meets developed land, where buildings meet forests and fields.
As more workers find opportunities to do their jobs from home and rural areas receive access to high-speed internet, more people are moving from and to city centers, sometimes bringing with them a number of unintended consequences.
The dangers of wildfires, collisions with wildlife and dwindling resources are some of the effects that can come from more people moving to undeveloped areas.
However, it is the fastest growing landscape type in Washington, said Ashley Blazina Cooper, director of environmental justice for the Western Washington Department of Natural Resources and Forest Health.
From 1990 to 2010, the size of the wild urban frontier in the United States grew by about 190 million acres, approximately 297,000 square miles, larger than the state of Texas. The number of homes grew by about 41%. Nearly 99 million people live in the region, and more than 46 million homes in 70,000 communities are now at risk of wildfires, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the U.S. Fire Department.
Although there is no exact data on how these numbers have changed since 2020, Census data shows that counties with a mix of rural and urban land in Washington have seen growth in the past 10 years.
The population of Franklin County grew by approximately 24%, the largest population change in Washington. Its neighbor Benton County also grew by about 18%.
Other Central Washington counties, such as Douglas, Grant, and Adams, grew more than 10%. Chelan, Kititas, and Whitman counties grew about 10%.
Most people who move to these areas have never lived in rural areas before, said Mark Billings, a professor at Washington State University’s School of Environment. Many of them do not know how to live in this landscape and keep themselves safe.
“Maybe there’s a percentage of people moving into the[wild urban frontage]that shouldn’t be,” Billings said.
Billings said the risk of wildfires is increasing due to climate change and more than 100 years of fire suppression. At the same time, the number of people living in harm’s way is increasing.
“Anyone who moves to the[wild urban frontier]has to understand that they have a responsibility to live with bushfires,” Billings said. “There is no inevitable, and at one time or another they will be affected.”
Cooper said one of the biggest concerns about people moving into these areas is that it’s changing the dynamics of wildfires there.
She said homes are often made of wood, and have a different burning method than a tree. How likely a home is to burn down depends on a number of factors, including the intensity of the development or the direction the home is facing.
“(Urban wilderness frontage) is not necessarily synonymous with wildfire risk, but building a house in the Nile River Valley usually puts that house at greater risk,” Cooper said.
Cooper said owning a home in these areas can make it difficult to put out fires.
Billings said firefighting resources often prioritize areas where life and property are at risk. This often means an expensive firefighting cost.
“The more people who are at risk, the more resources we need to protect them,” Billings said.
In recent years, he said, the number of fires that have started has stopped, but the fires that do start tend to be larger and more problematic because they threaten human habitats.
Cooper said there are a number of things people can do to protect their property and make it more defensible against fire.
I suggested looking at historical photos of what the forest around their house looked like. Most homes will have to do some kind of loosening on their property to make their space more defensible.
If they are building a house, consider installing metal roofs or metal doors, making sure there are no plants around the first 5 feet of the house. If they are buying a home, they can ask previous homeowners or real estate agents what they recommend to keep their home safe.
It’s also important to consider evacuation routes, Cooper said. A lot of developments only have one way of getting in and out, so it’s important to take this into account when moving to a place with a wildfire risk.
“There are a lot of risks associated with that, and they should be aware of all the things that make their home safe before they move into one of these areas,” Cooper said.
Billings also said that people should learn about the institutions in their community that deal with fire, whether they are volunteer fire departments, state agencies or federal agencies. He noted that in some areas there is no dedicated fire department or official fire protection.
Ken Bevis, a wildlife biologist with the Department of Natural Resources, said new people living next to the wilderness lands should reach out to the department’s Small Forest Landowners Office to find out how to take care of their lands and make it more defensible.
The Extension Forest Program at Washington State University offers a planning class for people who want to learn how to take better care of their land, he said.
Bevis said human existence is a “mixed bag” of wildlife.
Further development and greater human presence, he said, generally affects larger animals more than smaller ones, as human activity can repel animals that would otherwise move freely across the landscape. People are afraid because they do not expect it, but they are moving to a neighborhood where wild animals are naturally found.
There is often a “very low tolerance” for larger animals, such as bears or cougars, Bevis said.
Once they start interacting with humans, he said, “it’s usually a matter of time before they are killed.”
It is small animals that often cause the most inconvenience to homeowners.
Bevis said he encourages homeowners to create a complex environment when doing land management. By planting shrubs or rose bushes, for example, you can benefit from young wildlife by providing a habitat for them.
“Usually, we humans think of our development as just our evolution, but in fact, wildlife views it as their home,” said Michael Atamian, a regional fish and wildlife biologist in Washington.
Some animals can’t take advantage of this evolution, so it pushes them out. Others move, such as pigeons in large cities.
Atamian said there is no specific data showing more wildlife sightings in Spokane in recent years, but anecdotally, he’s heard more people in the area report sightings.
Some of the increase, he said, was due to more new arrivals. Traditional rural landowners may not report seeing someone who has just moved into the area and has never seen certain types of animals before.
Atamian said the department has seen a lot of calls on porcupines in recent days, which can be a problem for pets. They also see a large number of calls around deer.
Atamian said there isn’t a lot of data showing an increase in wildlife conflict with humans or livestock, but “as more people are removed from the landscape, there is a greater chance of conflict,” he said.
To avoid conflict, Atamian encourages homeowners to secure their litter, feed their pets inside, keep their pets indoors during twilight hours and generally give the wildlife their space.
Anytime there is a concern, Atamian said residents should contact the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
A section of state building code is now associated with the International Wildland Urban Interface Code, which city planners, fire officials and building code officials are required to use. It says that any new building built, or anything that will be modified in a wild urban facade, must follow certain parts of the code to ensure it is fireproof.
“This is definitely an ongoing process because a lot of counties don’t necessarily have the means to do that,” Cooper said.
For example, one requirement is that all new buildings use fireproof roofing materials, but many counties don’t have a way to track this.
He said it was important to know who the community trusted and to use those people to try to solicit change. For example, if a community trusts its local fire department but not the state government, it is important that these people be the mediator between the state or federal agency and the local community.
The number of large fires in the western United States doubled between 1984 and 2015. Although each year varies, data from the National Interagency Fire Center shows that the number of acres burned has been consistently higher in the past 20 years nationwide.
It has become very common for entire cities to burn, such as Malden, Washington or Paradise, California.
As the fires continue to fester, Billings said, communities at the edge of the urban-wild interface need to be aware of the dangers of wildfires. Many of these people probably don’t think about wildfires on a regular basis but they may soon become more vulnerable to big fires.
“It will become more and more common that towns and cities that we didn’t think of as being at risk of wildfire will be at risk of wildfire,” Billings said. “You’ll start to see them burn. That’s scary.”