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More homes being built in wildfire-prone areas of the Mountain West

A construction crew is working on the foundation of a home being built on a dirt lot. Mountains and forests are in the background.
Kaleb Roedel
Mountain West News Bureau
A construction crew works on the foundation of a custom home in the wildland-urban interface in Reno, Nev., on Oct. 12, 2022.

A new study shows that grassland fires burn more land and destroy more homes than forest fires. Yet more homes are being built in these fire-prone areas across the nation, including the Mountain West.

The wildland-urban interface is where wild vegetation like grasses and shrubs collide with development. Nationwide, the number of homes built in these areas rose 6% between 2010 and 2020, according to a study published recently in the journal Science.

During that span, the Mountain West saw a significant amount of housing growth in that zone. The biggest jumps were in Utah (17%) and Nevada (16%), which ranked third and fourth, respectively, in the U.S. Only North Dakota (26%) and Texas (20%) had higher growth.

Increases were also above the national average in Colorado (12%) and Idaho (8%), and just below that level in New Mexico (5%) and Wyoming (5%).

But housing growth in the wildland-urban interface is only one factor driving the risk, said Kimiko Barrett, a wildfire researcher with Montana-based Headwaters Economics.

“It being exacerbated not just by climate change but also human ignitions … to make wildfire a very real and spreading threat across the country, and particularly in the Western states,” said Barrett, who was not involved with the study.

The 2021 Marshall Fire in Colorado and this year’s Lahaina Fire in Hawaii are recent examples of that growing threat, she said. Both started as grassland fires and turned destructive.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.
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