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Forest Homeowners Play With Fire

Often, taxpayers face the bill for their carelessness.

June 28, 2002|STEPHEN F. ARNO and STEVEN ALLISON-BUNNELL | Stephen F. Arno and Steven Allison-Bunnell are co-authors of "Flames in Our Forest: Disaster or Renewal?" (Island Press, 2002).

Federal and state agencies have already spent millions of dollars in frantically attempting to save Western forests from the fires now consuming them. They will spend millions more. Paradoxically, however, science tells us they are defying nature.

Fire has been woven into the fabric of Western forest ecosystems for countless years. It did not destroy but, in fact, created magnificent stands of old-growth ponderosa pine, western larch, western white pine, coastal Douglas fir and giant sequoia. Fire helped renew Rocky Mountain aspen groves and many species of fruit-bearing shrubs and succulent herbs important for wildlife.

Still, we struggle to remove the fire from "fire-dependent" forests because of the threat it poses to a few million homes, cabins and other development in the woods. Structures built in earthquake or hurricane country must meet rigorous construction standards. If they don't, insurance companies may not insure them. There are no corresponding standards for structures built in fire country. Zoning regulations tend to be weak, and property owners vigorously defend their right to build as they see fit. As a result, thousands of vulnerable homes are constructed in forests each year.

Firefighting agencies try to educate forest homeowners about what they can do to reduce damage from wildfires--the Web site www.firewise.org is one resource--but there are few incentives or regulations to encourage or compel responsible action. Instead, homeowners expect, even demand, "free" government fire protection. For example, they want a fire engine and crew stationed at each threatened house until the fire moves on or is extinguished.

The solution to this dilemma of more development in the forests, and forest homeowners' expectations that the government will rescue them from fire, may be a dose of "tough love" that requires the kind of personal responsibility normally associated with life in the rural West a century ago.

Subsidized fire protection should be provided primarily to homeowners who make their forest homes defensible during a wildfire. This can be accomplished by taking the following measures:

First, the access road to the property should be well-signed and cleared of brush and there should be a turnaround for fire engines.

Second, tree thickets adjacent to a structure should be thinned and the branches and tops removed, along with brush and other natural fire fuel within 120 feet of buildings. Trees farther away should be thinned to make the "home forest" less vulnerable. Firewood and other flammables should not be stored near the structure.

Third, combustible roofs should be replaced. Pine needles should be cleared from roofs and gutters.

Finally, a sprinkler system should be considered.

These measures are not technically difficult or particularly expensive, considering the values of home and forest property at risk. Indeed, they are simply part of adapting to forest life.

A natural Western forest used to be tended by fire. Leaving the city or suburbs to get away from it all doesn't free forest dwellers from yardwork. The alternative is that fire will do the work on its own.

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