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Forest Fires and Exurban Housing


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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