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2.4.05

Hazards In the Urban-Wildland Interface

I've written a number of times about the risks of wildfire in the "urban-wildland interface," the area where residential settlement edges up against, or is scattered within, more "wild" environments. In addition to the specific factors that raise fire danger in the UWI -- such as more sources of ignition from human activities and the drying out of forests due to increased sunlight penetration -- there are some factors that make the UWI especially prone to natural hazards in general. For example, because of its relatively recent origins in many locations as a result of people moving away from cities, UWI areas have not developed community and cultural institutions to make up for the lack of the kind of emergency services that are available in urban areas.

But it now occurs to me that the UWI may also be especially prone to technological hazards, such as pollution. The basic reason is that contrary to residents' implicit assumptions, the "wild" areas that make it up are not necessarily "frontier wilderness" or even traditional rural areas -- i.e. areas that have heretofore been protected from human settlement by distance or inaccessability. Take for example the case of the Ciba-Geigy Superfund site in Toms River, New Jersey. Wild lands are rare on the Jersey shore because of the increasing population and the money to be made from housing development. Nevertheless, the Ciba-Geigy site sits on many acres of "wild" land not far from downtown Toms River. The various companies that ran the chemical plant located on the site maintained a large property as a sort of buffer zone around their operation. Because this buffer zone retained its wild appearance, it exerted the kind of aesthetic pull that spurs development of the UWI. Housing developments sprung up just outside of the Ciba-geigy fenceline, benefitting from the environmental amenities of the area.

Yet concieving of the buffer zone as wild in a traditional sense led to actions by both plant management and residents that heighten the risks from the plant. It is plausible that having a "wild" buffer led to laxer safety standards at the plant, contributing to the contamination of the groundwater. A plant located closer to town might have provoked outrage at a sooner date by subjecting people to risks earlier in the contamination process and making informal monitoring of activities on the site easier (e.g. the plant could get away with dumping chemicals because it was hidden away in the woods). On the other hand, the wild buffer may have created a subtle impression that any contamination would be absorbed by nature and not threaten anyone. Meanwhile, people moving into the UWI developments near the plant suffered from a bit of wildland-induced naievete. The trees and birds evoked feelings of healthy nature, disguising the technologically-created threat in the groundwater. Further, the wildland provoked enhanced opposition when the contamination became known. Risk perception research has shown that people are more concerned when a risk seems to be unnatural or in violation of the accepted order of things -- a description that applies more accurately to pollution in a wild setting than in an urban one (where contamination is expected). This kind of elevated concern can damage trust from both sides.

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