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The Sternal Journal

He's a WUI-ty

Sternal Journalists! A few weeks ago, I told you everything I learned about the WUI aka Wildland Urban Interface, the growing intersection of people and, for lack of a better phrase, burnable nature. It's where a lot of the current West Coast fires are causing harm and destruction to humans. 

But I knew I didn't have the whole picture, and when a friend of mine who is a Real Ass Expert in natural disasters, responded to that email with "Tinder in a box, that's a dry ass forest," I knew we had to have a summit so I could learn more and pass it on to you. And we dubbed that summit WAP... to WUI. 

Disclaimer: The conversation has been edited for brevity and contains almost 0% WAP talk, but a lot of useful WUIty.

Sternal Journal: So. WAP to WUI. 


Real Ass Expert: What a place to start.


Where do we start? I guess…. what does WUI mean to you?


My training and interest in natural disasters is really in the flood space. But natural disasters overall can be parameterized in a similar way. Wildfire mapping is something new. We’ve been mapping floods for a long time, but with wildfires, we’re just now starting to map those areas. Oftentimes, the WUI is in that area, especially in the West. 


And, to clarify, there is no WUI without human interaction right? Because the “Urban” in Wildland Urban Interface inherently means people built things there?


Right, and the way to think about fire is that it’s a natural part of an ecosystem. It’s the way the forest restores itself. A fire regime is an important part of a healthy forest. We’ve just kind of encroached on where those fire regimes have traditionally taken place.


So you’re basically saying there’s good fire and bad fire? And that good fire is part of the ecosystem. You wouldn’t see a lake, and be like, “Oh no! That’s a well contained flood.” Does that track at all?


Yeah! I think that tracks. But also we’re letting more places flood now than we used to. 

If you have a Greenway in your suburban neighborhood, like a sidewalk path along a river, it’s designed that way because it can flood when it rains. That’s a movement called “room for the river.” The river needs to be able to expand, it doesn’t need to be in a channel like behind concrete.

And with fire, up until 20-30 years ago, the main control aspect was suppression. Whenever there was a fire, it was immediately put out. We did what we could to avoid fires altogether. 

Recently, there’s been a movement towards controlled burns. They start a fire intentionally and burn some of the vegetation, the fuel. So when a wildfire occurs, it’s not as intense as it would have been otherwise. 

One of the interesting things about controlled burns this year is, because of the risk of COVID spread to wildfire fighters and also the risk of smoke as an irritant exasperating the disease, basically all controlled burns this year were canceled. 


Oooh, I follow a controlled burn firefighter on TikTok. What about floods? Are there good floods and bad floods?


Those are similar I think. Floods are good for the ecosystem for reasons like sediment transport. There’s all kinds of positive aspects of flooding. 

But we’ve made flooding worse in the US. Think about New Orleans. We build this whole levee system around it. We think it’s safe, and then a storm like Katrina comes and overtops it and it’s a horrible disaster. 

And with the WUI, it’s like, you’ve maybe created a defensible space around your home, and you think it’s safe to be there, but then something happens and that illusion of safety is gone.


I need to look at a map of the levees. I hear about them all the time, but I don’t understand what happened there. 


Basically, the system that was built before Katrina was built over thirty years and the engineering autopsy report was like, “This was a system in name alone. It did not work together.” 

And so when we went to deploy the defenses that the levee system had, it just was uncoordinated and collapsed in different ways. They spent billions of dollars fixing it, so it’s supposed to be better now?


As long as they spent billions of dollars, I’m sure it’ll work next time.


The funny thing is right after they finished, there was a rain event and it flooded New Orleans. And it wasn’t a hurricane, it just flooded really hard. It was like the pumps didn’t work right, or something. It’s just evidence that New Orleans is a really tough place. There’s people that would argue that it should be abandoned. 




Because of the risk.


I remember you telling me about the first climate refugees. I assume there have been more since then. And that would be a climate refugee situation, right? Wait! Here’s my question there…

Would the idea be, “We have ravaged New Orleans and it is not fit for anything anymore,” or would it be, “New Orleans was never fit for this. We’ve given it a go of, whatever, two hundred years, however long it’s been around. We’re now as scientifically and engineeringly adept as we think we’re gonna be but we haven’t fixed it, so we gotta get out and it will return to its natural environment?” Or is it ruined? 

Basically: did we ruin New Orleans?


I mean, what it was before was a swamp. So I don’t know how you would retreat on land like that. That’s really complicated. 


Because we built on…? The bayou isn’t there anymore, right?


Right. We hardened the land so that we could inhabit it. So I think it would be hard to return to that. 

There’s like a case study that my boss talks about in Miami. They surveyed the community and said, “You guys are gonna have sea level rise, it’s gonna flood here all the time. You can stay, but what if we stopped providing you city services like trash removal or sewer or maintaining roads and stuff like that, would you consider it? Here’s an estimate of how much would be out of pocket every month.”

So there’s places that are starting to think like that. They’re not gonna force you to move, but they’re going to cut off any of the benefit the city would provide you for staying there. From their standpoint, it’s just too costly.


Huy. That’s a lot. And then I’m sure some people would say, “This city was negligent in telling people they could live here and now they’ve ruined these people’s lives and how are we going to subsidize them elsewhere?”


Um. Yeah.


No answer for that one. 


It’s an interesting… it’s kind of like what we’re seeing with the COVID response. The federal government has said, “We’re not going to tell you what to,” and some of the states are like “It’s up to you guys to wear masks.” Right? We’re not gonna tell you you have to. It’s up to you guys to do it. 

And that could happen with climate change stuff as well. Federally, FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security is pushing responsibility to local areas, and local areas are trying to decide if they off-lay that responsibility on citizens like they’re thinking about in Miami. 

So it’s just something where there’s not enough money to go around and people are looking at different strategies of how to move forward. 


Mm. One of my questions that I always wonder about climate change is like… will there be a moment, even if it’s 1,000 years in the future, where fighting climate change is truly pointless?

Where everyone, even the most pro climate change people are like, “Okay! We tried, and it was worth it to try, but it is now fully irreversible and we should just stop.”

Like, is that not until the point where the entire sky is engulfed in flames and there’s a single person left saying, “Okay, I guess I should just relax and have a beer?”


So there are a lot of different camps on this. There are some people who make the argument that climate change will just be… beneficial to some people. Which is definitely true. 

When the New York Times put out their climate migration story like a week ago, they drew a line where the most ideal temperature is. And it’s basically just gonna shift. There’ll be parts of Canada that become a lot more fertile. Those areas will be better for agricultural development.

So there will be positives, but I’m of the opinion that the negatives far outweigh the positives. The shift in population and the hardening of infrastructure that will be required to withstand climate change impact is just tremendous, and we haven’t shown a good case study that we can actually move people. 

With the timetable, it’s a slow moving disaster, but it feels like we’re not getting our act together and actually do the right thing. 


I feel like this question can be applied to so many of the national, global super-problems we’re facing, but what is the point of a thousand little band aids for a problem that requires like metaphorical chemotherapy?


Um. Ugh, that is a great question. And it’s one of those things… locally, cities are only thinking about preserving their tax base. Every time I’ve talked to a city about managed retreat, they’re like, “We don’t want to think about it. We don’t want to think about retreating.” Because you’re giving up land and tax base for your city. You’re changing the culture of the city. 

No one is at a place now where they wanna grapple with that and it would kind of take a national strategy to get people to move in that direction, so it’s just… when left locally, you’re gonna preserve what you have. 

Because no one’s telling you not to. 


Right. So it would pretty much take federal incentives for people who have the power and money to use them wisely?


Yeah. yeah.


[Laughs] The defeat in your voice. 


I’m not convinced it’s all for naught. But I think there would be strides made if we had a federal government that believed in and was ready to prepare for climate change with a national strategy… so there’s that.

*** *** ***

So there is that, Sternal Journalists. By now, I bet you have a plan to vote, but if you don't, make one! And while we are talking about preserving the land we have, it is certainly worth acknowledging that this land was taken by mentioning that today is Indigenous People's Day. 

I still have a ton of learning to do in this area, but right now a thing I'm doing at my day job work is figuring out with colleagues how we can include an Indigenous Land Acknowledgment. If you're a part of a workplace or organization trying to respectfully acknowledge the indigenous land you're on, take a look at this explainer put together by the Native Governance Center

Alrighty, friends, that's all. Next week, a thrilling conclusion to the Hot Dog on a Train Saga (or is it?) and, if there's room, my review of Netflix's Deaf U.

Vote vote vote, love love love,


Copyright © 2020 Julian M. Stern, All rights reserved.

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