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Forest Fires and Exurban Housing

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The Times hosted a “Room for Debate” about forest fires. They address it in a silly way, asking “Does the Government Cause or Prevent Wildfires?” Um, both? Also, wrong question.

The fundamental problem is that wealthy people have moved to the forest edge, built large homes without proper vegetation clearance to protect those homes from the common fires in dry-land western forests, don’t want to pay taxes or serve in rural western volunteer fire departments, and demand full service from the government for every little problem they have. This latter point is getting to be a bigger deal every year–since it is mostly those past middle age with the money to buy land in the mountains outside of Denver, the need for medical services in remote places grows precipitously. But I’ll leave that aside for now. And then there’s climate change exacerbating the situation.

The government has played a role in making the problem worse through a century of fire prevention that was unnatural and created an overgrowth of vegetation that has allowed superfires to develop. But that’s not just the government–the timber industry lobbyed around this ideology that all fires must be suppressed. And today, with ecologists and botanists suggesting that foresters manage the forest in a more historically natural way, austerity-loving Republicans, often from the states where these fires take place, have decimated funding for both controlled burns and fire-fighting. For instance, the air fleet we use to fight fires is laughably old and many of the planes are quite dangerous and should not be flying. Of course, there’s no plans to replace them since there’s no money in the budget.

Briefly going through the contributors to the Times debate, H. Sterling Burnett is a timber industry hack and employee of the Heartland Institute who argues that more logging would solve our problems. Uh, no. Steven Pyne is an environmental historian of an older generation whose denigration of cultural history alienated me a long time ago; he calls for a middle ground between environmentalists and development makes more sense on a theoretical level than a practical one. In any case, saying more grazing is part of the answer raises a lot of red flags. On the other hand, I find myself agreeing on a certain level with libertarian Randal O’Toole for Christ’s sake (at least if you strip away all the anti-regulation howlers), who says that if you move to the edge of the forest, it’s your responsibility to save your own home. Obviously I don’t go that far, but he is right that these people who choose to live with national forests as their backyards have to understand that there could be consequences for that decision.

I am more comfortable with the arguments of the others. Carolyn Kousky points out that federal fire suppression efforts serve as a subsidy for rural development in high fire-risk zones, something that Mike Davis also pointed out in his seminal essay “The Case for Letting Malibu Burn.” Molly Mowery correctly notes that urban (or exurban I guess) planners need to center fire prevention in building codes. And Kevin Boston rightly calls for better forestry policy, which would solve a lot of problems but is also very expensive to implement given the state of the forests, a point also noted by Marc Johnson.

I don’t imagine I write anything that get less comments here than my posts on land management and forestry policy, but this stuff is extremely important. As we’ve seen in Colorado this year and Texas last year and who knows where next year (or later this summer), out of control forest fires cause immense human tragedy, are hugely expensive to taxpayers who subsidize federally declared disaster areas, and devastate parts of our beautiful nation in ways that traditional fires rarely did. Thinking about fire policy in conjunction with urban planning is part and parcel in thinking about how to run our nation intelligently.

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  • Murc

    I don’t imagine I write anything that get less comments here than my posts on land management and forestry policy, but this stuff is extremely important.

    While your posts on land management are always educational, I don’t often feel like I have anything to either ask or to contribute when they pop up.

    Posts about politics and culture, different story. I’m a political junkie and therefore feel like I have something valuable to contribute there. But a post like this, about the only thing I could offer would be to roundly agree that our land management sucks and we could do better on it. I don’t have a whole lot to offer beyond that.

    I hesitate to speak for others, but I get the impression a lot of the commentariat is in the same boat. It’s the same reason a lot of Robert’s posts on international relations don’t get a lot of heat. It’s not that we don’t read them, or aren’t interested. It’s that we feel we don’t have much to contribute.

    • firefall

      I’m very much with Murc on this: while I roundly agree with these posts, I have little to add, it’s far outside my areas of knowledge (such as they are) and your reasoning seems impeccable … except perhaps for the assumption that this nation was or will be intelligently managed

      • joe from Lowell

        Ditto with Farley’s more-technical military policy/appropriations stuff.

    • rea

      Yeah, sometimes the most informative posts are the ones that get the least comments, for precisely the reason that we’re all keeping our mouths shut and learning.

      • Cody

        Yes, but I’m intent on getting comments onto this article by injecting my ill-informed opinions everywhere.

        I just count on all the other commentators to correct me, till I learn some good writing skills.

        P.S.: This is much cheaper than Law School

        • Phoenix_rising

          +1

        • firefall

          You haven’t received Crusty Prof Campos’ bill yet?

  • Another Halocene Human

    Same thing happens on the coasts. Coastal property used to be where poor people lived, now it’s the superrich getting Federal cheese every time their multi-million uninsurable Architecture Magazine cover star “great views” impingement on the public coastline gets smashed up.

    Talk about your moral hazards.

    • Very good point.

    • Stan Gable

      There’s an interesting problem along the western Washington coast with view homes perched on bluffs prone to mudslides (along the sound). This is made more unfortunate in that the principal freight & passenger rail connection is directly underneath these homes and routinely gets blocked during the winter.

    • NBarnes

      Moral hazard is something that needs to be looked out for in public policy with respect to poor people. Rich people don’t have moral hazard problems because they are rich.[/davidbrooks]

      • Holden Pattern

        This has been today’s lesson in “Antinomianism in the Theology of Mammon”.

  • joe from Lowell

    H. Sterling Burnett’s comments are so wrong-headed that it’s difficult to believe he’s arguing in good faith.

    He argues that allowing timber companies to log forests will reduce the severity of fires. The problem is, the very trees that the logging companies take – the oldest, largest, tallest ones – are also 1) the most resistant to fire, and 2) the ones that provide a thick canopy, blocking sunlight and reducing the volume of highly-flammable shrubs, herbs, and young trees at ground level. Allowing the timber companies to log the forests increases the severity of fires.

    • Excellent point as well.

    • Cody

      This is only true if you assume the Timber company won’t use cut and burn methods and eliminate 100% of the forest. Without a forest, there can’t be a forest fire.

      Then we’ll just have to deal with huge brush fires, but he fixed the stated problem.

      • witless chum

        Exactly. A damn good portion of northern Michigan burned in the late 1800s after we logged off almost all the white pines.

        Same day as the Chicago fire in 1871, there were huge firestorms across northern Michigan and Wisconsin. That’s what happens when timber companies get to do as they please.

      • DrDick

        In other words, that is only true if you assume that the timber companies will continue operating the way they always have and which has the least direct cost to them. I live in western Montana and the timber companies are not responsible stewards of the forest.

    • I really really hate the timber industry for exactly these reasons.

  • Maybe I missed any discussion of developer’s responsibilities? Have evacuated for both the 2000 Cerro Grande and 2011 Los Conchas fires in NM, I was shocked to see all the shingle roofs being burned in Colorado Springs this summer. They looked like “cookie cutter” houses — I guess cost reasons lead the developers to build with shingle rather than metal roofs. Maybe I’m wrong, but looking at the photos, the trees around the houses were brown, but the houses were gone. It looked like embers landed on the roof. A good class A roof shouldn’t have been as bad. I believe in the NM mountains, any roof that is replaced has to be class A to keep insurance coverage. Maybe it requires building codes, but lacking that, developers and insurers could be a help.

    • Phoenix_rising

      If this were the only known instance in which NM code regulated anything to be more expensive than CO code, I’d be astonished.

    • This is a good question and I don’t really know the answer. Developer responsibilities are the same thing as state regulations since the developers won’t do anything without being forced to comply with the law and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see the Colorado legislature completely unwilling to regulate development. But again, this is a level of specificity that could take me out of my element.

      • Usually just lurk

        Colorado has actually been better than average in this regard. Except for the extreme wingnut faction from the Springs, which has the occasional victories like TABOR but mostly sits on the sidelines, most of the state Republicans are pro-conservation in the Teddy Roosevelt model. Therefore the state survived the GOP dominance era in much better shape than most other states.

    • Usually just lurk

      I don’t think that can be right. Most of the homes that burned in Colorado Springs were upscale and relatively recently built – if the roofs appeared shake it would have been one of the fake shake products. Wood roofs have not been permitted for decades.

      Not that developers give a rat’s ass about a house after their warranty expires. And Colorado Springs’ right wing populace recently voted to change the city to a “strong mayor” governance model and promptly voted in one of the biggest right wing developers as the first “strong” mayor. This won’t be anything but bad for the Springs (already “liberal” ideas like mass transit and bike paths and open space are under severe attack – and with all the budget cuts they are still spending millions on unneeded bridges for the underused thoroughfare on the NW side in hopes of helping the miles of dying housing developments nearby) but even with all that no one is talking about bringing back shake roofs.

  • I don’t imagine I write anything that get less comments here than my posts on land management and forestry policy

    Well maybe if Daniel Tosh’s house burns down…

    Seriously though, agree with everyone above. These posts (along with the labor history ones) are hard to chime in on. But they are interesting and informative and one of the real gems of the blog.

  • I don’t have anything substantive to add, but I’ll be using this as a basis for a post on my blog.

  • MikeJake

    On the other hand, I find myself agreeing on a certain level with libertarian Randal O’Toole for Christ’s sake (at least if you strip away all the anti-regulation howlers), who says that if you move to the edge of the forest, it’s your responsibility to save your own home.

    It’s like that guy in Tennessee who chose to live in an unincorporated part of the county and didn’t pay a fee to the local municipality for fire service (because Government Is Bad). Of course, when his trailer caught on fire because his idiot son was burning trash, he called the fire department and was shocked when they wouldn’t put out his fire.

    • David W.

      This is why essential services like fire protection should be based on taxes, not voluntary fees.

      • MikeJake

        Agreed. But the genius Real Amurricans in that particular corner of Tennessee didn’t want that. They preferred the choice of paying for fire protection services. And the municipal fire department went to a subscriber model because they found that they weren’t getting paid when they fought the fire and billed the recipient of their services.

        • Hogan

          How dare you exclude me from coverage for having a pre-existing fire?!

          • BKN in Canadia

            +1

        • David W.

          What’s crazy about the subscriber system of fire protection is that if lives are possibly at risk the local FD is required to show up anyway, so the paying subscribers pay more for calls to non-payers. And waiting for a grass fire to spread from a non-payer to a payer before responding is also crazy.

          • DrDick

            It is also the case that your house burning down potentially poses a threat to other people’s property. This is a big part of the reason we switched from private to public fire fighting in the 19th and early 20th century.

            • Heron

              You hit on probably the most insane thing about the con/libertarian social policy mindset right here. So many of them honestly seem to believe that these sorts public programs are both new, and the product of some conspiracy to make people dependent on government. It never occurs to them that earlier generation may have made things like fire prevention, law enforcement, and municipal maintenance public responsibilities to solve serious problems.

              • DrDick

                We actually had private police and fire until (I think) the mid-19th century and perhaps later in some areas. It was an absolute disaster with private fire companies setting fires to drum up business and rival fire companies getting into brawls in the street over who would put out the fire while the building burned to the ground.

    • Linnaeus

      What’s funny (to me, at least) is that I know some conservatarian types who pointed to that incident as evidence that Government Doesn’t Work.

  • bob mcmanus

    Well, I am doing just a little reading and thinking about the satoyama, and the restoration projects in Japan. I presume Loomis and many here know more about that than I do, but for those who don’t, the satoyama is a cultural landscape or a managed ecology between the urban and wilderness. Villages of small farmers (not agribusiness) and local craftspersons who would for instance use the underbrush in part of the forest for firewood etc creating firebreaks. They also, in Japan, create artificial “wetlands” via rice paddies.

    I currently have no idea how to promote this or bring it back, and it probably wouldn’t help the large forest fires.

    • rea

      Works a lot better in Japan than it would in the US mountain west, due to population density.

      • NBarnes

        The specific techniques used in Japan wouldn’t translate well, but the idea of managing the wilder areas of the US so that the interface between them and urbanized areas is less prone to horrible disaster is a very good one.

        Of course, the other problem is that the US has a long and storied history (and not-history, as it continues today nearly unabated) of regulatory capture of the agencies created to do that managing by the resource extraction companies they are supposed to rein in. Even in this specific case, you only need to get halfway through Loomis’ piece before running into a lumber industry apparatchik taking the opportunity of these fires to advocate for the giveaway of more public resources to private industry. Hard to get responsible management in an environment where so many well-connected and well-funded sociopaths are always on the lookout for their next scam victim.

        • DrDick

          There is also a lot of opposition to government regulation here in the rural west. We have constant battles over just these issues here in western Montana, as municipalities, counties, and the state attempt to develop responsible, proactive policies to minimize harm and expense and local land owners and developers scream bloody murder about theft and violations of property rights.

      • DrDick

        Also rainfall patterns. Japan has a wet climate, as opposed to the arid climates in most of the fire prone areas of the American west.

    • Murc

      Japan also has the “advantage” in that it doesn’t really have suburbs and exurbs the way we do, and its declining population is increasingly moving into the cities.

      I mean, this creates a whole host of other problems, but in terms of land management it simplified as lot of things.

  • Given that our current default cultural position is that individual choices should rule (where individual means largely corporate and consumers doing what corporations want and not valid when it comes to punishing and surveilling actual people), it’s difficult to even have this conversation. But needless to say I think there is a difference between, for example, private sexual acts or marijuana use, which tends not to have a large impact beyond the individual, versus large scale developing and timber industry decisions that have large scale impacts.

    It’s also true as Galbraith (pere) said that ‘no planning’ isn’t actually an option. There is either corporate planning or government planning, and only the latter do regular people have the means to influence.

    • joe from Lowell

      I think there is a difference between, for example, private sexual acts or marijuana use, which tends not to have a large impact beyond the individual, versus large scale developing and timber industry decisions that have large scale impacts.

      I’d go so far as to say that there is a difference between an individual building himself a home on a piece of land, and a development corporation building a project.

      We talk about these things as if the individual homebuyer has any kind of control whatsoever over where and what kind of housing is available when he’s looking to buy a place.

  • Fake Irishman

    Erik (or other commentators) I was wondering on your knowledge/insight on the effects of requiring mandatory federal fire or flood insurance for people living in areas prone to wildfire, low-lying coastal regions or flood plains. On one hand it forces owners to take some financial responsibility for the likelihood that they will be flooded or burned out and might reduce the costs of emergency aid. On the other hand, it just subsidizes people moving into vulnerable regions — which is a personal choice, or at least much more than health care is.

    So under what circumstances does mandatory insurance help or make matters worse?

    • Heron

      I’m no expert but I’d be suspicious of that for one particular reason. Back in 2002 or 2003 Texas had a particularly wet year that resulted in an explosion of “black mold” cases, leading to a concurrent explosion in home insurance claims in the state of Texas. One of the largest insurers in Texas, I think it was 21th Century or Farmers though I could be wrong, responded to this by declaring flat-out that it would not honor its policies with Texas homeowners. A similar thing happened with Katrina throughout the Gulf Coast.

      So my concern with mandatory fire insurance would be that it would first have the potential to create a big captive market for insurers, who would naturally lobby to have the class of home-owners required to buy into it widened as a result, and that when a disaster does happen, if there is no parallel government assurance that the companies will pay out, they would just pull up stakes rather than honor their contracts. Perhaps if we created a public insurer, maybe through HUD or FEMA, that would handle the issue then it wouldn’t be such a bad idea, but that would likely present its own problems down the road.

      • Fake Irishman

        Right. To clarify, I was thinking along the HUD or FEMA lines.

    • This is a good question. It really depends. There are lots of floodplains, especially in the South and Midwest, where poor people are forced to live because they are undesirably for the wealthy and they are forced to pay high rates of insurance. In more desirable places–the coasts, the mountains–that insurance and the federal guarantees behind it if disaster strikes, absolutely does subsidize risk and high-end development.

      I recommend Ted Steinberg’s Acts of God on these issues.

  • Holden Pattern

    The Times hosted a “Room for Debate” about forest fires. They address it in a silly way, asking “Does the Government Cause or Prevent Wildfires?” Um, both? Also, wrong question.

    If you’re not careful about what you consume, American “news” will just make you dumber.

  • Snarki, child of Loki

    Molly Mowery correctly notes that urban (or exurban I guess) planners need to center fire prevention in building codes.

    There are exurban planners? I thought that was (part of) the point for people to move out beyond the suburbs: minimal interference with “building beautiful houses that burn oh, so well”.

    • Malaclypse

      There are exurban planners?

      Without zoning and planners, the poors move in and fuck everything up. You think rules against hanging laundry out to dry simply write themselves?

    • Hogan

      They’re called “developers.”

  • Dr. Doom

    The fundamental problem is that wealthy people have moved to the forest edge, built large homes without proper vegetation clearance to protect those homes from the common fires in dry-land western forests, don’t want to pay taxes or serve in rural western volunteer fire departments, and demand full service from the government for every little problem they have.

    So, wasn’t the agenda to get everybody to look to government to solve every little problem?

    So, why are you surprised?

    • Malaclypse

      Exactly. Government has no business running fire departments. If London had a government-run fire department in 1666, would we have ever even heard of Christopher Wren? Answer that, libtards!

      • Hogan

        I read a London guide once that said the city had benefited from the two greatest slum clearance programs in history: the great fire of 1666 and the Blitz of 1940.

        See? The system does work.

        • Malaclypse

          Yep. If the government had succeeded in their misguided attempt to prevent the Blitz, would Lucy have ever even found the Wardrobe?

      • DrDick

        Proving once again that he has never read any history. We tried private fire and police initially. That is why they are run by the government today.

      • Colin Day

        And without the fire, London would still have plague!

    • joe from Lowell

      So, wasn’t the agenda to get everybody to look to government to solve every little problem?

      No. Assuming your political opponents’ motivations to be the mirror image of your own is juvenile.

      Should we assume that global warming deniers are motivated by a desire to see rising sea levels and longer droughts, merely because that’s the opposite of environmentalists’ concerns?

      Should we assume that people who supported the Vietnam War were motivated by the notion that the photo of the napalm-burned girl running down the street represented a good thing?

      Grow up. Politics doesn’t work that way.

  • Hovde

    Ecologically opimality and political feasibility diverge quite sharply on this one. It might be a good idea to designate large swaths of territory as quasi-free-fire zones, in which property protection would be a very low priority, so that resources could be directed to those fires which appear most ecologically threatening (i.e. let Malibu burn as long as it’s contained). Sadly, the folks in Malibu have influence vastly out of proportion to their numbers.

  • Ian

    I don’t imagine I write anything that get less comments

    Fewer! There you go.

  • Gabriel Mares

    I originally hail from San Diego, and you’d think after the 2003 and 2007 fires there that people would agree to more taxes/regulation to deal with fires (the news showed fire trucks coming into the outer parts of the county from all over the Southwest, neglecting to mention that they had to because there weren’t firetrucks in those areas to begin with), but it’s amazing how much of disconnect there is between people’s perceptions of general problems and how they might be contributing to those problems.
    I think to some extent people thought after 2003 that since a giant fire had occurred and burned so much brush and trees that there couldn’t be another big fire for decades. Whoops.

  • scott g

    Lots and lots to say on this subject, actually – but the first thing that jumps out at me is my unsurprised outrage that the NYT has a forum on Western wildfire policy without including a single environmental voice from west of the Mississippi? WTF?! I have a dozen colleagues who can run rings around this whole crowd, but here Resources for the Future (Gaia bless ’em, no slam on Carolyn Kousky or her very rational message) has to carry the entire enviro end of the conversation? Grrrrrrrr!

    On the whole, from the perspective of someone who has spent a lot of the last decade working on and talking about forestry policy in the west, this is an appallingly misleading and poorly sourced conversation. It embodies the worst of the NYT’s tendency to reflect Beltway-centric conventional wisdom on the shape of, and legitimate voices in, a whole range of ‘environmental’ issues.

    • scott g

      Too many people arguing for impossible choices, and the Times isn’t holding them to account as against empirical reality.

      Rancher guy and timber beast sling Big Lies about ‘ending grazing’ and ‘environmental extremist appeals’. I have to agree with Erik, I am disappointed in Stephen Pyne’s shilling for false compromises. He should know better. Randal O’Toole, who at one point did know better, is lost in a libertarian fantasy, where what the yeoman does with his own spread is all that matters for fire risk, and the insurance companies and their invisible hands will work it all out because the free market is magic.

      But the fact is, the feds and the states underwrite the market in fire country. We all collectively carry huge liabilities for the situations that counties and other local governments effectively help create. And it’s the rate of increase in the overall cost of fighting fires that’s killing the US Forest Service and CalFire.

      In the American West from here on out, wildfire is tied to everything else, from endangered species to climate adaptation management, forestry and development policy. The familiar seesaw of federal, state and local actions will almost certainly continue to confound a coherent overall approach, but the basic principles are glaringly obvious: get firewise, do restoration, use fire to reduce fire risks.

      The Waldo Canyon firestorm is in real danger of becoming the pretext for another round of really-poorly informed lawmaking, as the San Diego fires did when the Bush Administration’s Healthy Forests Initiative was teed up for Congress. That was a policy disaster that gave the timber industry a lot of what they wanted. The Times is not helping us do better by framing the discussion so poorly.

    • “but the first thing that jumps out at me is my unsurprised outrage that the NYT has a forum on Western wildfire policy without including a single environmental voice from west of the Mississippi?”

      This isn’t true. Steven Pyne is at Arizona State (and is absolutely an environmental voice), Kevin Boston is at Oregon State, Paul Schwennesen is a rancher in southern Arizona, and Marc Johnson works for the Andrus Center for Public Policy, located in Boise.

      Plenty of western voices.

      • scott g

        And not a one from the environmental-ist side of the issue. There’s a lot going on out there, and the enviros have some real expertise to offer.

        I certainly respect Marc Johnson’s contribution here, but the Andrus Center is very much a let’s sit down and make peace kind of think tank, not advocates. Like I said, I know at least a dozen people who could make a really solid contribution to this conversation: they’ve chosen not to even look for one.

        • OK, I see your point. It’s true–the debate does lack a real environmentalist voice. And that is a problem.

      • scott g

        No, I don’t think Stephen Pyne is a voice from the environmental policy side. Yes, he writes environmental history.

        But here he’s doing that tired old dance about the reasonable middle that’s natural refuge of the pundit. To wit: “It won’t be easy because partisans rally around the extremes and tend to dictate the overall course of discussion.”

        Pyne does at least cop to many aspects of actual reality that many other voices here don’t.

      • scott g

        And do I really need to point out that Kevin Boston, the professor of forest engineering from Oregon State (still the pre-eminent bastion of timber management), is playing Good Timber to Sterling Burnett’s Bad Timber?

        • At Oregon State, you take what you can get.

          Which leads me to the follow-up question of who still majors in forestry.

          • scott g

            Not a few folks who want to help build a better, more responsible industry. Even at the big timber schools like OSU – remember Dan Donato? He was a grad student there when he did the study on post-fire recovery that brought down the wrath of the industry.

  • Zaftig Amazon

    Urban and exurban sprawl will be solved by $6/gallon gasoline. When people have to decide whether to pay their mortgage or pay for gas, that is when a lot of this development will be abandoned. Peak oil proponents expect this to happen in the near future.

    Also, Cape Town, South Africa has a burn policy, whereby undeveloped areas surrounding the city are slated for burning on a 7-year cycle (I assume the city also bans development in these areas). Cape Town has a climate similar to Southern California, but has never had the destructive fires seen near Los Angeles or San Diego.

    • Amanda in the South Bay

      Bingo.

      I remember seeing the suburbs on the west side of Portland build up from the 80s to 2004-ish (before I left Oregon), and its absofuckingcrazy that people live in Orenco Station-ish and drive all the way into downtown Portland everyday (Max, what’s that?). So much of it is unsustainable bullshit, driven by people who think Hillsboro and Beaverton are Nirvana or something.

  • chris

    these people who choose to live with national forests as their backyards have to understand that there could be consequences for that decision

    I wonder if you would extend this to people who live on fault lines, along tsunami or hurricane-prone coasts, in floodplains, in areas with frequent tornadoes… that adds up to a lot of people, many of whom have limited choices about where to live and/or would face major costs if they attempted to move out of future disaster areas.

    • Amanda in the South Bay

      The answer is not to lump people living near exurban forests near those other groups of people. Exurban sprawl tends to be of a different beast than those other categories.

      • DrDick

        Some of them. There are an awful lot of the same affluent people building along coastlines in areas prone to storms and severe erosion and then wanting the government to bail them out.

      • Right–while there might be exceptions, people who live where there are frequent tornadoes often do so because they can’t live other places (or at least can’t afford housing with foundations that would allow them to survive). Most of the people who live in big exurban homes are rich.

        • Kim

          I really think these points are better made about the homes that burned in the High Park fire outside of Ft Collins than the homes in Colo Springs, but even then it’s tricky. Both of these areas are a lot like NM – some big freaking homes right next to weird trailers whose owners have been there years. I think calling even most of the people in these areas wealthy is a misnomer and a problem when we talk about exurban and fire/water/infrastructure problems, because it’s as easy to dismiss a wealthy stoopid person’s second home as it is the poor. And I’m totally ok with these two fires getting us to talk about taxes/exurban development/etc, but the Springs fire was not all about wealthy homes. I have many friends who live in that area in the Springs who evacuated – neither rich, both in their 80s homes for at least 20 years. And frankly, this area isn’t really exurban either, well, only as much as the Springs itself is exurban. That was really the scary thing about this fire, it wasn’t just the crazy rich people and their second homes, it was in the city, with normal middle-class homes, that never really had the need to cut back foliage, or have metal roofs, because they were suburban, not exurban. And, this is really playing well for the city of CoSp, seeing as how their ultra-conservative constituents voted against so many infrastructure taxes (we giggle and shake our heads every time we are there) and many politicians there are calling the kettle black.

  • Usually just lurk

    Obviously I don’t go that far, but he is right that these people who choose to live with national forests as their backyards have to understand that there could be consequences for that decision.

    This is a good point, and yes I think we can easily find a lot of people who live in such situations who have strongly hypocritical views about taxes and the responsibilities of government.

    But I think a lot of this is due to the mass of right wing propoganda, largely uncontested in America. Consider that if you were to drive through Colorado Springs now, on any route, I guarantee that you’d see at least 20 large “God bless the firefighters” and similar signs. The wingnuts love them the firefighters. Of course, they also support a political party that has voted to drastically cut funding for firefighting and for National Forest management (except those funds that provide National Forest services for free to the logging industry), and supported the Bush Administration who forced as many federal firefighters as possible to move to contractors status without health insurance.

    Yes, this is a contradiction. But I think if somehow those folks could mentally connect those budget cuts to the impacts they have on the firefighters they’d be outraged. But they’ll never hear about them because such cuts are never discussed in mainstream news, let alone right wing news.

    • BigHank53

      Love is cheap. Medical benefits and pensions–those things aren’t even in the New Testament.

  • Mo

    I recall one proposal for beachfront housing in hurricane zones – the subsidized insurance would only cover up to the median cost of housing in the area. So all those multi-million dollar mansions would, if destroyed, have to be replaced as an out-of-pocket cost by the homeowners. Unless they wanted to build a smaller house.

    The flood plain insurance was originally intended to be used to rebuild once, and then let people move elsewhere. Instead, it has turned into huge houses being rebuilt over and over again.

    I don’t have a problem with houses in flood/fire/hurricane zones, but the government shouldn’t be subsidizing megahomes there.

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  • JoyfulA

    There was an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer 30 or 40 years ago that gentrification was a money loser for the city. The rate of demands for city services–There’s a pothole in front of my house! My trash wasn’t picked up, so send somebody now! the little problems poor people shrug and ignore–easily outpaced higher real estate taxes.

    So I believe you that these mansion builders in the outback demand all sorts of urban service levels that the old-timers wouldn’t dream of.

  • Gabriel Mares, Zaftig Amazon and others: Forest fires in the west are larger when fire is suppressed. Chaparral and sage scrub ecosystems in California are different than forest ecosystems. Chaparral only burned every 100 to 200 years before human intervention. Small fires that created a mosaic were useful until invasive weeds became an issue. Now, if invasive plants get a toehold, chaparral and scrub can be type-converted to annuals grasss and weeds such as mustard that burn every year. If chaparral burns more than once every 10 years, it will generally become a weedy, fire-prone system.

    Joe from Lowell: exactly right about what trees the timber companies want.

    Mo: the California FAIR plan is state-run insurance that does subsidize huge houses in inappropriate areas. I love your idea for insuring only the median house price for the area. The build-out changed the face of the Oakland hills after 1991 as everyone upsized.

    In California, the trees and the brush are demonized, and few people even think about building a fire-resistant house. Houses with metal roofs did not burn during the Oakland firestorm. Houses are at least as likely to catch on fire from the embers of other burning houses, which can travel up to a mile, as they are from trees or native shrubs. A friend of mine in Big Bear said yesterday, “People move here for the forest and then become afraid of the trees.”

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