People and fire at Florida's wildland-urban interface

May 13, 2002

A study from the recently published Proceedings of the Eleventh Biennial Southern Silviculture Research Conference illustrates some of the problems related to prescribed burning in an increasingly populated fire-prone landscape.

Conducted by Forest Service researchers David Butry, John Pye and Jeffrey Prestemon from the Southern Research Station Economics of Forest Protection and Management unit in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, the study describes Florida's wildland-urban interface as a complex mix of people, development and wildlands.

"We wanted to understand the relationships between the places where wildfires and prescribed fires occur and the types of people living in them," said Butry. "With a diverse and growing population scattered across a landscape that frequently burns, Florida provides an excellent study area."

With an estimated 16 million inhabitants in 2000, Florida is the fourth most populous state in the US--and a place where prescribed fire is used extensively to manage forests and to prevent wildfires. A large portion of the state's population are retirees, immigrants or migrants from other climates, and are not accustomed to living near fire. This unfamiliarity, combined with pockets of dense population, may limit the use of prescribed burning in some areas and result in greater risks of wildfires.

The researchers used GIS overlay and correlation techniques to examine fire-affected zones in Florida, comparing demographics, road density, neighborhood forest stand attributes, forest fragmentation, and wildfire frequency. They found the most intense areas of prescribed burning in the north central and panhandle regions of Florida, while wildfire occurred more evenly throughout the state, with the heaviest concentration in the southwest.

"On the average, we found that the people living in areas where fire is more common are more likely to be Caucasian, older, less educated and earning less income than those living in less risky areas," said Butry. "However, there is a marked difference between those living in areas where fire is a result of prescribed burning and those living in areas with wildfires. People living in wildfire areas tend to be older, more often Caucasian, and wealthier than those in areas with only prescribed fires."

The researchers related these differences to how different types of forested land are valued. Prescribed burning is usually used in intensely managed government-owned forests that may provide fewer aesthetic and recreation benefits--and more exposure to smoke. Nearby land tends to be relatively low-priced. Wildfire-prone areas where prescribed burning is not used tend to be privately owned, and--perceived as providing access to a more "natural," undisturbed forest--valued higher.

The study highlights some of the challenges facing policy makers and land managers concerned with reducing wildfire risk or maintaining fire-adapted ecosystems in areas with a growing population either unaccustomed or averse to the use of prescribed fire. "Demographic analyses such as these may help land managers and educators better target prescribed fire and wildlife education programs," said Butry. "Such programs could ease the concerns of residents and change attitudes toward fire management in areas at high risk for wildfire."
-end-
For more information: David Butry at (919-549-4037) or dbutry@fs.fed.us

The full text of the article, "Prescribed Fire in the Interface: Separating the People from the Trees," is available at http://www.srs.fs.fed.us/pubs/viewpub.jsp?index=3115.

The article is one of over 120 articles on topics ranging from pine and hardwood nutrition and regeneration, ecophysiology, fire, and insects and disease included in the Proceedings of the Eleventh Biennial Southern Silviculture Research Conference, edited by Kenneth Outcalt. The proceedings are available at http://www.srs.fs.fed.us/pubs/gtr/gtr_srs048/index.htm .

USDA Forest Service ‑ Southern Research Station

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