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What firefighters in the West defend

Posted on July 6th, 2013 in ecology,Environment,Health by Robert Miller

Home destruction near Yarnell, Arizona. This fire killed 19 experienced firefighters (From Washington Post)

For decades, home development in the American West has been expanding into regions which increasingly face risk from forest fires, often with unexpected ferocity. Climate change has raised the threat level for many of these homes. It is no secret that firefighters in the West today increasingly protect homes at risk of fire destruction. The nineteen Granite Mountain Hotshot firefighters were protecting homes when strong wind gusts changed the fire conditions into a death trap. Though this fire is not contained as yet, it has already destroyed some 200 homes. Is it really worth risking lives to protect homes that should never have been built there in the first place?

The NYT has an article today based on a study recently released by CoreLogic that concludes 740,000 homes in 13 western states lie within the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) with an increased risk of destruction by fire. These at-risk homes have a value of $136 billion. Increasingly the serenity of a richly forested gravel road leading to a secluded cabin or primary residence is replaced by a smoke-filled hazy summer skyline of a nearby forest fire that forces residents to abandon their homes in search of a safer environment. Part of the fire risk is man-made because fire prevention methods have allowed a richer undergrowth which adds to the combustible biomass underneath the taller trees. Natural fires have been a feature of forest fires from the beginning of time, typically ignited by lightening storms, which generated fires that did not reach the canopy of the taller trees, because not enough underbrush combustible biomass was available. Indeed, it is the tree-ring data from the surviving trees that that provides the best evidence favoring the normal “cleansing action” of forest fires. But with the more combustible undergrowth, forest fires often consume the canopy trees and destroy the entire forest, making recovery from the fire greatly prolonged and very likely the forest will never return to its pre-fire state.

Many residents of vulnerable homes in the West blame the Federal Government for poor forest management policies during the era of “Smoky the Bear.” However, there is objection to even listing the vulnerable home sites because the residents fear increased insurance costs and regulation. Despite evidence to the contrary, Westerners often maintain a sense of rugged libertarianism, even though they come from states that receive more money from the Federal Government than they contribute in the form of Federal taxes. It is doubtful that anything other than huge insurance costs will prevent continued encroachment at the Wildland Urban Interface.


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