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Originally published August 15, 2012 at 8:38 PM | Page modified August 16, 2012 at 9:53 AM

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Fire-prone areas: to build or not to build

As more houses in Kittitas County are built in areas prone to wildfires, federal, state and local agencies have focused more on making the homes resistant to fire than on discouraging construction.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The wildfire that destroyed scores of homes in Kittitas County had something in common with recent blazes that roared through Colorado Springs and other communities in the parched West this year: It struck in an area where development is a recurring feature of the landscape.

"Obviously the losses we see year after year are increasing," said David Nuss, manager of the National Fire Prevention Association's wildland fire-operations division. "I think there's a couple of reasons for that. One is there are just more homes out there. That continues to be a trend."

The other reason for greater fire damage is hot, dry weather, he said.

Nuss's organization, along with national, state and local governments, is promoting both voluntary and regulatory measures intended to help protect the 45 million American homes next to forests, grassland and scrubland.

Kittitas County, part of that effort, adopted a building code in 2006 that requires use of nonflammable materials in the roofs and siding of new homes built in fire-prone areas, as well as creation of a "defensible space" where trees and other potentially dry plants are kept away from houses.

What the code doesn't do is discourage or forbid construction in what experts call the "wildland-urban interface."

For Ray Rasker, executive director of Bozeman, Mont.-based Headwaters Economics, that's a huge oversight.

Across the West, there are homes on 14 percent of the wildland-urban interface, Rasker said. "The other 86 percent is wide open for development. That's the second half of the conversation. What do we want the future to look like and how do we prevent these firefighting costs from going up?"

The federal government spends $3 billion a year protecting homes from wildfires, twice as much as it spent 10 years ago, Rasker said, and he predicts the cost will double again within 15 years.

Rasker said he wants to promote a national conversation about home-building in fire-prone areas, but most people "are completely distracted" by the laudable effort to make rural homes more fire-resistant.

The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Kittitas County and the Kittitas Conservation District haven't endorsed his suggestion that fire-suppression costs be restrained by discouraging construction in fire-prone areas.

Instead, they have been helping homeowners meet the Firewise Communities guidelines promoted by the National Fire Protection Association, U.S. Forest Service, Department of the Interior and National Association of State Foresters.

Those guidelines were used as a model for Kittitas County's 2006 building code.

Suzanne Wade, Firewise coordinator for the Kittitas Conservation District, said the district, DNR and the Washington Conservation Corps have helped 40 to 50 homeowners this year trim trees, thin younger vegetation and take other steps to remove fuel that could spread fire from woodland to home.

Bryan Flint, spokesman for DNR and Public Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark, said Goldmark is more interested in those kinds of safety measures "than a critique of how many people are in one particular place."

Kittitas Fire Marshal Brenda Larsen said her office hasn't yet been able to inspect fire-ravaged structures to determine whether houses built or maintained according to Firewise principles fared better than other homes.

As for whether construction should be restricted in fire-prone areas, Larsen said, "I'm of two minds because I do believe in individual property rights, but I also think that if you are going to be building in those areas you should be held to a much higher standard because the potential for a wildland fire is increased with every single person who goes into the urban-wildland interface."

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

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