George Pyle: We all need a little ‘defensible space’

(Noah Berger | AP photo) In this Aug. 18 photo, Jerry Kuny sprays water on a home as flames from the LNU Lightning Complex fires approach in unincorporated Napa County, Calif. This home remained standing as the main front passed although the fire went on to destroy multiple residences. With California fire crews strapped for resources as hundreds of lightning-sparked fires broke out in one night, crews of organized residents have worked to put out spot fires themselves in a massive complex of blazes along the central coast, banding together to sneak behind evacuation lines and keep properties safe.

Firefighters call it a “defensible space.”

Or that’s what they would call it, if they weren’t too exhausted and gasping for breath after days and weeks of battling wildfires to be able to say anything.

It is the idea, promoted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other state and local experts, that a really good way to prevent your home or business from being consumed by the next huge wildfire is to tend to the surrounding ground.

It is pruning or removing trees or other plants, making sure nothing flammable is stored around your house, paving a driveway or sidewalk so that it comes between you and the nearby open space, being smart about the building materials you use, especially on the roof, to minimize the chance that your dream home will someday go up in smoke, maybe taking you with it.

It is not represented as being a perfectly effective method. There are infernos that build up energy and speed in our climate-change-starved forests and rangelands and can easily jump over the trimmed and paved parts of any subdivision or business park.

But any fire that has just started, that isn’t a fully blown conflagration, might be stopped before it can gather that much strength. And that’s good for you, your neighbors and everybody else.

Fire prevention is not the only part of modern life where the idea of a defensible space makes sense.

The most obvious, and necessary, right now is protecting households and businesses from the wildfire that is COVID-19. In that context, the defensible space is provided by people wearing masks and keeping their distance.

As with a barrier to spreading fire, those tactics are not 100% effective. But they are a relatively simple, low-tech method of denying the coronavirus fire the fuel it needs to gather itself into a force that becomes all but impossible to put down.

Recent reports from the hottest zone of our state — the big universities and high schools of Utah County — raise some hope that the outbreaks detected there are not so much a result of contact in the classrooms but a result of, shall we say, extracurricular activities.

Apparently, Utah Valley University and, perhaps surprisingly, Brigham Young University, have been party central in recent days. (In BYU’s case, this sadly undermines the hope that young people who do not drink alcohol will also not engage in other stupid behaviors.)

A straw to cling to here may be that masked students, facing forward in a classroom, even if sitting only a couple of feet apart, are less likely to spread the virus than are assemblages of unmasked students standing only 6 inches apart so they can hear one another talk over the loud music. Less likely to take the infection back to their dorms, their classrooms and their grandmothers.

Even when impossible would be the preferred option, we should be happy for “less likely” when we can get it.

Another place where we should be building defensible spaces is around the November election.

There is no question that Russia plans to monkey with our democracy again this year, maybe to see to it that our current Kremlin asset is reelected. It is at least as likely that they will just gum up the works enough to make Americans doubt the reliability of their democracy and the legitimacy of whoever it is who gets sworn in on Jan. 20.

The worst thing that could happen, of course, would be Russian cyber-trolls actually breaking into the election systems of various states and counties and jiggering with the results. That’s not thought to be that much of an issue in Utah, but the threat cannot be totally ignored anywhere.

A more likely course of events would be what happened last time, with phony organizations posting false information all over Facebook, Instagram and elsewhere, spreading lies and fear and distorted information about how and where to vote.

You know. Like the U.S. Postal Service sending out flat false information about how to get a mail-in ballot in states such as Utah, where nobody has to do anything because they go out automatically.

The Postal Service was right, though, when it suggested that people get their ballots in the mail early — a reasoning not that much different than its advice about Christmas presents — to avoid a last-minute crush that might mess things up for everyone. That, or relieve the poor post office of the burden altogether and drop off your completed ballots at designated drop boxes or government offices.

Think. Research. Don’t believe everything you see. Be careful about filling out your ballot and the papers that go with it. And get it in early.

That’s the defensible space around our democracy. Build it.

George Pyle

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, offers no defense for himself.


Twitter, @debatestate