Living with fire: understanding unprotected lands

Wildfire stock photo
A strip of Dry Grass sets Fire to Trees in dry Forest: Forest fire – Aerial drone top view. Forest fire: fire with smoke from the height of a bird flight.

Across the western U.S., hundreds of thousands of acres lie outside the boundaries of fire districts and firefighting agencies. Land managers call such places “unprotected land.”

To better understand these landscapes where thousands of people live and work, Mark Billings, teaching faculty member in Washington State University’s School of the Environment (SOE), surveyed one community on unprotected land in central Washington.

Gauging the risks, attitudes, and adaptations of life in these regions, he published his findings in a new article in the Journal of Environmental Management.

“Unprotected lands are places that don’t have any formalized fire protection,” Billings said. “If there’s a fire, nearby agencies can and will respond. But that lack of formal protection creates confusion about who’s in charge, can delay initial fire attack, and puts a financial burden on the agencies that provide the resources.”

Co-authored with Matthew Carroll, SOE emeritus professor, and Travis Paveglio, associate professor at the University of Idaho, the survey emerged from Billings’ completed doctoral studies in environmental and natural resource sciences. As a student, he was urged to talk to residents of the wildland-urban interface — the zone where town mixes with forest and range.

Mark Billings
Mark Billings, lecturer in the WSU School of the Environment.

“Without formal fire protection, residents are at greater risk,” Billings said. “Just as you don’t have an official agency to fight fires, you don’t have an agency responsible for mitigating fire risk. Residents are on their own. And some of them may not know it.”

In Washington state, about 358,000 acres of rural land across eight counties are unprotected. Thousands more should be considered under-protected, Billings said. Those lands might receive, for example, wildfire coverage but not structural protection.

“I wanted to know why people would put themselves at additional risk,” said Billings, who teaches courses in land policy and law, environmental science, and natural resources in society.

For the survey, Billings interviewed 32 residents of rural Chelan County, using pseudonyms for people and places to protect respondents’ privacy. The area that he covered is a working landscape of orchards, farms, and residential property.

While this part of the county lacks formal fire protection, local agencies respond to residents’ 911 calls. Many of Billings’ respondents believe they can protect themselves, and some have the tools and equipment to do so. Some consider the area’s irrigated orchards a buffer to wildfire, though these green spaces may not stop windblown embers. Conditions in the area, as in much of the West, are changing, with wildfire seasons becoming longer, warmer, and drier.

For many respondents, the challenges and independence of life in a rural area are part of its appeal. Some considered forming their own fire association.

“Not all communities are the same,” Billings said. “Scientists need to have deeper conversations with more communities in the wildland-urban interface to learn about their needs, capabilities, and desires in landscape management. Generally speaking, no one knows their land better than they do.”

Media Contacts

Mark Billings, Lecturer, School of the Environment,