Catastrophic wildfires ignite new CSU center for managing wildland urban interface

Extreme Colorado wildfires over the past two years burned in unprecedented ways in urbanized wildlands causing devastating loss of life and property. Colorado State University’s Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship is launching a new center dedicated to creating and applying the next generation of wildfire management solutions. The Center for Managing WUI Wildfire Risk will provide science-based answers to critical questions raised by the most destructive wildfires in Colorado’s history.

The Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship, part of CSU’s Warner College of Natural Resources, has a long history of education and research programs in wildland fire and collaborative management solutions. The College has faculty expertise in wildland fire behavior and management, fuels management, fire policy, and fire economics and suppression. It also offers undergraduate and graduate degree programs in wildland fire and has a variety of research and extension initiatives dedicated to the issue.

One of the Center’s first assignments will be to characterize and map the wildland urban interface, or WUI. Generally, WUI is a term used to describe places where human development intersects with undeveloped lands. In Colorado, these places have always been and will continue to be prone to fires as a natural part of the environment.

As the WUI has steadily expanded with continued demand for remote real estate, it has become highly vulnerable to catastrophic losses as dry, hot, windy climate patterns and forest vegetation conditions align to breed extreme wildfires.

“WUI fires constitute a complicated set of challenges that have defied traditional management approaches and cost millions of dollars – not to mention the loss and risk to human life,” said Frederick “Skip” Smith, principal investigator of the new Center and head of CSU’s Department of Forest and Rangeland Stewardship. “This interface is at the core of the wicked wildfire problem in Colorado, and managers and policy makers need an accurate and comprehensive description of the extent and condition of the WUI in Colorado.”

The Center will integrate geographic data, socio-economic characteristics, and wildfire risk potential to build a multi-tiered database that assesses the state of the WUI in Colorado. The research-based tool is aimed to help decision makers create solutions to the physical, ecological and social dilemmas presented by the new reality of wildland fire risk.

The Center plans to host a stakeholder engagement meeting in Fall 2013 to prioritize wildfire issues and establish collaborative partnership across the state. It will also host a multi-day conference in spring 2014 that will bring together wildfire scientists, managers, and policy makers to compile lessons learned from High Park, Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires.

“The Center will take a collaborative, interdisciplinary approach and engage stakeholders and partners in important dialogue about wildfire issues, such as environmental conditions, impacts and responses; social and economic impacts and responses; and emergency response,” Smith said. “There are no easy answers, but Colorado has the science, people, infrastructure and mindset that make it the perfect laboratory to tackle these tough problems.”

The Center for Managing WUI Wildfire Risk received funding from U.S. Forest Service and will be led by Smith; Tony Cheng, professor of forest policy and director of the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute at CSU; Doug Rideout, professor of fire economics and director of The Western Forest Fire Research Center at CSU; and an extended team of interdisciplinary scientists. For more information, visit

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