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Building homes in forested areas is like playing with fire

Published July 29, 2007 12:00 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Last spring five former chiefs of the U.S. Forest Service sent a joint letter to Congress. In that letter, the chiefs warned Congress about "an untenable financial situation due to the way fire-suppression funding is being handled in the federal budget."

Increasingly, the agency is being asked to pay for fire suppression at the expense of other priorities and needs. Last year firefighting consumed 45 percent of the agency's budget, leaving less to spend on campground maintenance, trail work, wildlife and fish habitat restoration and many other worthwhile programs.

There are, of course, several reasons for rising firefighting costs. The first is drought. It's axiom of fire ecology that you get big fires with extreme drought. There is little one can do to control drought.

Under conditions of drought coupled with low humidity, high temperatures and, most important, high winds, wildfires are unstoppable. It is not a failure of federal firefighting agencies that is contributing to our growing firefighting costs, but a failure of state and local governments to bite the bullet and begin to halt the construction of new homes that are being built outside of established towns and cities throughout the West.

In recent years, the majority of the firefighting effort has focused on "structure protection." In other words, firefighters are no longer fighting the fires themselves, but spending the majority of time and effort defending homes created by rural sprawl.

Fire-related costs, both in loss of life and tax dollars, are almost totally avoidable. Nearly 85 percent of the half-mile fire hazard zones surrounding U.S. communities is found on private lands. And it is largely the responsibility of state and local government to regulate and minimize the risk posed by wildfires.

If states would enact urban growth boundaries such as Oregon has done that confine new construction in or near existing communities, wildfire would be a minor threat to humans. But due to the failure and even hostility of many of the West's state and local governments to control sprawl, we have a growing mess and crisis.

Next time a fire burns down someone's home, ask the local county commissioners or state Legislature why they are allowing homes to be constructed in fire-prone areas? Constructing homes in the "fire plain" is no different than building a home in the river's flood plain. Sooner or later you are going to lose your home and maybe even your life.

With global warming creating conditions favorable for large unstoppable fires, we are going to see more and more large blazes. Either we continue to keep our heads in the sand, refusing to make adjustments in our behavior and suffer the consequences, or we can begin to change our behavior so when the inevitable large fires do occur, we aren't victims of our own ideological rhetoric.

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* GEORGE WUERTHNER is a writer and photographer. His new book is Wildfire: a Century of Failed Forest Policy. He is also a former Montana hunting guide and board member of the Montana Wilderness Association.