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More People Are Moving To Places Where Wildfires Are A Growing Risk

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The West is bracing for another ugly fire season, but it's not the only region threatened by wildfire. As Molly Samuel of member station WABE reports, more and more people are moving to areas in the country that are prone to burning, often without realizing the danger.

MOLLY SAMUEL, BYLINE: Miriam and Phil Harrison moved to higher ground in Tate City, Ga., after their home in South Carolina flooded. They thought it would just be temporary.

MIRIAM HARRISON: And then when it came time to go home, we didn't want to go (laughter).

SAMUEL: Phil says the beauty of the place made them want to stay.

PHIL HARRISON: And the remoteness...

SAMUEL: The tiny community is deep in the woods of the north Georgia mountains. Homes are hidden up steep, curving drives on wooded slopes.

M HARRISON: It's the closest thing I'll get to heaven on earth. It really is. It's wonderful.

SAMUEL: But in the fall of 2016, wildfire came to their piece of heaven while they were still building their house. It was a terrible fire season across the Southeast, including a fire that killed more than a dozen people in Gatlinburg, Tenn. In Georgia, Phil and Miriam were driving on the road out of Tate City to do errands in town.

P HARRISON: And we noticed on the left-hand side a small fire along the road. Then we noticed two more separated down the road.

SAMUEL: Then they saw a fourth fire and a woman trying to put it out.

M HARRISON: Growing every minute by the time we came back home.

SAMUEL: They didn't have to evacuate. But over a few days, the fire spread towards them and around Tate City. Miriam says it was frightening.

M HARRISON: I remember thinking, I just want to get this house finished (laughter) and live in it and enjoy it and certainly not have it burn down.

SAMUEL: The Harrisons say they had no idea that wildfire was something they needed to worry about, especially moving to the lush, green and humid Blue Ridge Mountains. But it turns out, like tens of millions of Americans, they live in what's called the wildland-urban interface. It's an area where human development and wild places meet and mix and where wildfire is a big and growing problem.

KIMIKO BARRETT: Right now, the wildland-urban interface is the fastest-growing land use type in the country.

SAMUEL: Kimiko Barrett is the lead wildfire researcher at the Montana think tank Headwaters Economics. She says the wildland-urban interface has been growing since the 1970s. And the pace has picked up as housing costs have skyrocketed and many have looked farther out to find something they could afford.

BARRETT: So now 1 in every 3 homes is situated in wildland-prone lands. And more than half of the population in the West now lives in these wildfire-prone landscapes.

SAMUEL: But the Southeast is the region where the most new home construction is happening in the wildland-urban interface. It also has more wildfires every year than the West, though they're typically smaller. And that number's expected to go up as climate change leads to higher temperatures and more intense drought. Barrett thinks we need more regulations around development to help protect people.

BARRETT: ...Such as development codes and wildland-urban interface codes, building codes, things along those lines.

SAMUEL: Four states have rules around development and fire, and Barrett says a growing number of cities are adopting them. But there's not much appetite for more regulation in some rural counties of the Southeast, which leaves volunteer groups trying to persuade people to protect themselves.

On a Saturday spring morning, some have set up at a booth at a north Georgia farmer's market between a pork rind vendor and a towering inflatable Smokey Bear.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I like to pet Smokey (ph).

SAMUEL: They hand out pamphlets and talk to passersby.

FRANK RILEY: So this program, the Firewise program, you're probably aware of this.

SAMUEL: Volunteer firefighter Frank Riley coordinates the Firewise program in Georgia. He says some homeowners associations actually require people to grow shrubs right up to their houses' foundations, which is bad for fire safety. And there are developments where he knows a fire engine can't maneuver.

RILEY: And then they live on these roads that you can't turn a firetruck around on.

SAMUEL: He says there are mountain communities on steep hillsides with only a single road in and out, where he worries a wildfire would create gridlock.

RILEY: They have a problem.

SAMUEL: And he says if he doesn't tell them, they probably won't realize it until there's a fire. So he does his grassroots work, homeowner by homeowner.

RILEY: And what happened is this guy starts doing something in the home next year (ph). Then the other one says, hey, can I do that, too? And it starts spreading like fire. And that's the whole concept.

SAMUEL: One of his partners at the booth is Mark Wiles, a fire prevention specialist with the Georgia Forestry Commission.

MARK WILES: There are so many folks that I have talked to over the years that says, you know, if we have a fire, I'll just call 911; they'll take care of it. What they don't realize is when our resources are exhausted, 911 can't take care of it because there's nobody to send.

SAMUEL: He says, yes, a local fire department can handle a one-off structure fire, but not necessarily a big wildfire in an area with a lot of homes.

WILES: We'll never have enough fire trucks for everybody. I mean, it just won't happen. In many of the communities here in the state, it's all volunteer.

SAMUEL: This is a message that Judy Potter has really taken to heart. She lives part time in Tate City in a house she designed and had built. It's beautiful - four stories, set in the trees, surrounded by birdsong and sunlight. But she's learned, in terms of fire danger, it's in a terrible place - hard to get to on top of a ridge. And it's built out of material that burns easily - cedar shake. Potter's home in the woods is basically a flammable chimney.

JUDY POTTER: I love it. It's a lovely spot, but it's not a good spot.

SAMUEL: Was any of this stuff on your mind? Did anybody...

POTTER: No. I built for sunshine and look.

SAMUEL: She says maybe if someone had given her a pamphlet when she got her building permit or if her builders had said something, she would have made different choices. Since the 2016 fire, she's treated her cedar shake siding to make it fire resistant. She uses rocks instead of mulch around her foundation. She has an evacuation plan. And she built a garage out of concrete and metal.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONCRETE AND METAL THUDDING)

POTTER: This is my bunker.

SAMUEL: Potter's made changes in the town, too, like adding signs so that firefighters know how many homes are up each twisting mountain road. And in the Tate City community center, Potter hung up photos of the fire menacing the town.

POTTER: It's a reminder to the people here or the people who come here afterwards, fire came close; we remember. I want people to remember.

SAMUEL: Her neighbors Miriam and Phil Harrison say they're more prepared now.

P HARRISON: If it comes, we know what to do.

SAMUEL: There was another fire in Tate City earlier this year. This time, a helicopter was able to get there quickly and put it out. The Harrisons say they've never considered, even for a second, moving away.

For NPR News, I'm Molly Samuel in Tate City, Ga.

(SOUNDBITE OF MESSAGE TO BEARS' "RUNNING THROUGH WOODLAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.