Seeds for new book on wildland-urban interface planted on fireline

Robert Westover
Office of Communication, U.S. Forest Service
August 27th, 2014 at 1:45PM

Forest Service Chief Historian Lincoln Bramwell For the better part of a decade, Lincoln Bramwell spent summers fighting wildfires across the West for the U.S. Forest Service. But over the years he spent on the fireline, he began to see his job change in ways that felt more obvious and dangerous.

This is because Bramwell began to see more homes on mountain slopes and ridges. An increasing wildland-urban interface adds challenges further complicated by public demands that firefighters make heroic stands to save houses from approaching wildfires.

What struck Lincoln was how entire subdivisions rolled over the rough mountain landscape nestled into the forest and shielded from view from the main road. And not all of these homes looked new. In fact, from his observations, many seemed quite old.

Bramwell asked himself: When did these houses start to appear? That simple question spawned years of research rolled into the book “Wilderburbs: Communities on Nature’s Edge”. Bramwell’s central focus in the book is an examination of the public’s ever increasing desire to build their homes into the wildland-urban interface and the impacts it has on the natural environment.

“Since the 1950s, new trends in homeownership and land development, as well as an evolution in American attitudes toward the natural world, fueled a housing shift into rural areas across the West,” said Bramwell. “Across the country, people are no longer content just to visit public lands and other wild landscapes a couple times a year. Now they want to live in them.”

The release of Bramwell’s book is timely. On July 27 fire officials evacuated one of the communities featured in the book as a wildfire threatened residents’ lives and homes. The El Portal Fire in California illustrates one of the risks when communities live on nature’s edge.

However, developer’s continue to capitalize on an area’s scenic beauty by designing what Bramwell calls “wilderburbs”—clusters of homes in rural valleys and up mountain slopes that lay within commuting distance of cities.

These wilderburbs are neither wild nor suburban; instead, they represent a new landscape where people try to live in the wilderness while maintaining the personal security, control of their surroundings, and accessibility to the city available in the suburbs.

In his book Bramwell explains how and why people built communities in the wild places of the West. Dividing his book into chapters on wildfire, water, and wild animals, “Wilderburbs” builds on the idea that human culture inherently shaped residents’ interactions with their environment. Examining this phenomena and communities in detail uncovers the profound environmental consequences for our desire to live in the wilderness.