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Commentary and Analysis | WESTERN FIRES

A Dream That Dares Disaster

July 07, 2002|PATRICIA NELSON LIMERICK and WILLIAM TRAVIS | Patricia Nelson Limerick, a professor of history and environmental studies, is the author of "Something in the Soil: Legacies and Reckonings in the New West." William Travis, a professor of geography, is the editor of the Atlas of the New West. Both work at the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado.

BOULDER, Colo. — If you live here and try not to think about fire, you've got a big job ahead of you. The sky is a gray haze because of the Front Range fires. The effects of drought are everywhere: You are allowed to water your lawn twice a week for 15 minutes. The forests immediately to our west are as dry as our lawns; that these dry trees are not burning is a state of grace that we're not taking for granted.

Fire sweeping through Western forests and grasslands is the oldest story both in and outside town. It's a story that began long before rural subdivisions spread into the forests.

Before we had the federal government and aggressive fire protection to blame for our troubles, Indians often watched smoke fill the air as trees and grasses burned. Sometimes lightning started the fires; sometimes the Indians used fire to encourage conditions more favorable to game. Either way, the Western forests burned.

Combine lots of biomass (aka, plants) with an arid or semiarid climate and fire is an entirely predictable feature of regional life. Yet an unwillingness to let the recognition of risk restrict individual freedom is an equally predictable feature of Western life. In the summer of 2002, these two dynamics have collided: Never before have so many Western homes been located, voluntarily and even willfully by their builders and owners, in the line of fire.

At the core of the Western dream is an individual who insists on making his own choices and refuses petty regulation. The Western landscape is rugged and tough, but the Westerner is more rugged--and tougher. He settles where he wants to and lives according to his own, self-reliant terms.

Until, that is, he needs help.

The Western dream has a golden parachute, a bail-out sequence, an escape clause and an exit plan. Pioneers intruded into Indian territory, and when they got themselves into a mess, the Army arrived to protect them and remove the Indians. Farmers tried to grow crops in places with low rainfall, and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation built the dams and reservoirs that filled in for the rain. Homeowners wanted to live in houses with stunning views, and counties built the roads and supplied the services to make these sites accessible and livable.

Western risk-taking has often relied on this back-up plan: We get ourselves in a pinch and the government--local, state and federal--rushes to get us out of it. Nature presents challenges that are at once dangerous and appealing, but human ingenuity and government funding quickly drain the danger out of these challenges and leave only their appeal.

Will the fires of 2002 lead to a different outcome? In the mountains of the West, Americans seek tranquillity, leisure and escape from the tension and friction of normal life. A landscape in flames, with fire bearing down on an architect-designed dream house, rebukes this vision with a force that should challenge our perceptions and the customs that flow from them.

But how justified is such a hope? Will a different, wiser West arise from the ashes of this summer?

Disaster will not necessarily discourage settling in the forest, a lesson Westerners might have imported from the East. People are still drawn to sites along the hurricane-vulnerable East Coast, even though a single hurricane can destroy a far greater number of homes than a whole season of Western forest fires. The Mississippi River floods repeatedly, and yet development of flood plains has not significantly slowed. Government programs to buy out storm-damaged homes pale in comparison with (and achieve a whole lot less popularity than) those that fund the rebuilding of communities.

And a season of fire, unlike a hurricane or flood, can even give a reassuring sense that now that misfortune has occurred, its recurrence is unlikely, thus nearly eliminating danger in the near future.

In some unexpected ways, the fires may strengthen the belief that the West is still an exciting, adventurous, wild place. Resilient real estate agents may already be at work on the new ads:

"Special home site with views unmarred by trees. Feel safe in the wide open spaces close to nature; recent fire means little hazard for the life of your mortgage! Improved habitat very likely to attract elk, bears and mountain lions to your viewscape."

Along with a weakness for real estate agents, Westerners have a deep-rooted hostility to regulation and are die-hard advocates of the rights of private-property owners. These attitudes are, apparently, inflammable; fire passes over them and leaves no mark. Few rural areas have any zoning, and many get along without building codes, not to mention the sort of regulations that might reduce fire hazards.

The human mind comes well-equipped with a set of time-sensitive blinders. Past and future danger falls out of the range of vision. If unpleasantness comes to a merciful end, and a comfortable present is restored, the lessons of history fade quickly from view. But every now and then, a lesson sticks.

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