Wildfire

Last week’s five-part series (“Fire Trap,” Herald, Aug. 25-29) described in detail the untenable situation this country has created with wildfire. It made clear that if nothing is done things will only get worse, with the loss of more billions of taxpayer dollars and untold lives.

We have to break the cycle. And in one way or another, that means changing our thinking about building in or near the forest.

After a century of fire suppression, too many forests have developed heavy loads of combustible fuels. The natural way to deal with that is allowing fires to burn.

But at the same time, more and more homes have been built in or near forests and other flammable wildlands. Protecting those homes then becomes the rationale for ever-more intense efforts to fight fires. That allows forests and underbrush to grow more and promotes further development in what is called the wildland-urban interface. And with more people living in or near the forest, political pressure builds to extinguish all fires.

It is a trap, and it got 19 men killed in one episode alone this year.

The taxpayers are trapped as well. The federal government is now spending $3 billion per year fighting wildfires, triple what was spent in the 1990s.

And it is getting worse. As the Herald reported, “Nine of the 10 most expensive seasons for fire suppression costs have happened since 2000.”

Whether that is a function of human-induced climate change, a natural cycle or something else is irrelevant. The fact is that much of that cost – both in lives and dollars – could be averted by letting wildland fires burn. Forests and grasslands evolved with fire. More frequent fires limit fuel and work to prevent catastrophic burns.

But nearby towns do not want to be enveloped in smoke. And to generations raised with Smokey Bear, it just seems wrong.

Far and away, though, the biggest issue is homes. Since 2000, more than 38,000 U.S. homes were lost to wildfire. Just this year, 488 homes burned in Colorado’s Black Forest fire.

Much of that is because of where they were. Writing in High Country News, author John MaClean says that nationwide 39 percent of homes are in the wildland-urban interface. And in La Plata County, that figure may top 50 percent.

Protecting those houses is often what gets firefighters killed and is driving up costs. Roy Rasker, a Montana economist estimates 30 percent of federal money spent on fire-fighting goes to defending homes.

We cannot eliminate wildfire, but we can change how we address its risks.

We could continue the path we are on and simply pay more and more to fight fires. That is perhaps the most likely, but given that Rasker estimates as much as 84 percent of the wildland-urban interface remains undeveloped, probably not sustainable.

Otherwise, there are essentially two options: a libertarian approach and a communitarian one.

In the latter, state and local governments would need to enact and enforce strict building codes and land-use regulations to ensure that structures in the wildland-urban interface are more fire-resistant and defensible space is maintained around homes. Builders and local governments have already objected to that idea.

A libertarian policy, which could be where the federal budget takes us, would mean an end to spending billions and risking lives to defend homes in fire-prone areas. Builders and homeowners would be on their own to sort things out with local governments and insurance companies. With that, all involved might make less risky choices.

None of those alternatives is pleasant. But in a trap, there are no easy ways out.

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